For some high school kids, figuring out a plan after senior years is as simple as apply to college and go, or start looking for a job.
But plenty of teenagers are facing issues a lot of adults would struggle with, financial and family pressures that make just getting to graduation tough—let alone, looking ahead.
James Stevens and Remi Greathouse have been friends since they started high school at Ponitz Career Technology Center. As part of our American Graduate series, “What’s Next”, they talked in a studio at Ponitz, where they’re both students in the broadcast program. Remi is 17, James 18, and they both talk about their childhoods in past tense.
“My home life wasn’t so stable,” says Remi. She grew up with a single mom who moved between jobs often, and struggled with depression. “Even getting to school was hard. I have three younger siblings under me so I have a lot of responsibility.”
James grew up in a household with a lot of domestic violence, and as a teenager he cared for his three younger siblings. He says his dad got addicted to heroin when the other kids were still little.
“I had to basically take the role of the father of the house at age 16,” he says.
Both of them spend more of their time worrying about family members than themselves.
“My stress was making sure [my mom] was okay, and that she knew I was there for her no matter what,” says Remi.
James has moved from home to home and now lives with another family. And, he’s been completing his credits for high school on schedule, but they both say, the support in school just isn’t always there—because the things stressing them out aren’t grades, or even financial aid or jobs.
“One of the biggest problems with stress was me having to come to school every day and worry about whether my mom or my dad would be in jail when I got home, or dealing with a possible overdose or something for my dad,” says James.
“You’re walking into something...you don’t even know if you’re going to be able to handle yourself, your mental stability,” says Remi. “And not only your mental stability but furthering your education. I think a lot of teachers don’t realize that either. They believe that well, if you’re not here, you’re just not here, you’re not going to get any help. They don’t ask to see, well, what’s in your background, are you okay at home...Some people actually do need help.”
Of course, some teachers do see this, and do try to help, and Dayton Public Schools says they’re aware of the issues.
David Lawrence, the chief of school innovation for the district, says when they scratch below the surface for a lot of students, “we start to hear about divorce, we start to hear about displacement, we start to hear about homelessness.”
But the reality is right now, to get support, “the students are grabbing whoever will listen now. And a lot of times, in most cases that ends up being at the high school level the counselors, and then across the board, especially at the elementary school, it ends up being the principal.”
Teachers and counselors don’t necessarily have time, or any training in social work, casework or mental health interventions, so some kids do fall through the cracks. Lawrence is pushing to get a social worker in every school as part of an effort towards what they call wraparound services, where the school helps address everything from mental health and drug abuse to homelessness among students and their families.
“Schools can’t be fixed by school,” he says. In other words, he thinks these wraparound services need to be an effort from the whole community including businesses, government, parks, and so on.
It’s a big vision with urgent consequences. 94 percent of students in Dayton Public Schools are living in poverty, which increases the likelihood that they have similar home stresses as James and Remi at Ponitz.
These two say they are headed towards graduation. They’ve both had family members step up and offer to cover their senior year fees and cap and gown. And they’re both hoping to go to Sinclair, and eventually get degrees in mass communications.
Moreover, they say their situations aren’t unusual.
“I don’t think we’re the only ones going through it,” says Remi.
“There’s a lot of people out there going through the same things we’re going through,” says James. He says that’s another reason to make it to graduation and stay focused on what’s next. “That’s just how it is. That’s another reason for us to learn from it.”
Thanks to Joanne Viskup and the media arts program at Ponitz Career Technology Center, a Dayton public school, for their help with this series. What's Next is a WYSO series produced in partnership with Think TV. It's part of the public media initiative American Graduate, which is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.