Photo Courtesy of Capital Public Radio
Unyque Jackson: high school dropout-turned-graduate and teen mom. Geronimo Garcia: high school dropout and gang member. Roosevelt Webb: re-enrolled high school dropout. Gina Vongkaeo: high school dropout, juvenile delinquent and finally high school graduate.
Capital Public Radio’s “Class Dismissed,” takes a deeper look at the dropout crisis through the point of view of four young people from California’s Central Valley.
“We have an especially acute problem in our Central Valley with very high numbers that just really screamed at us to tell their story,” said Paul Conley, senior editor for innovation, news and information at the Sacramento-based station.
“Class Dismissed,” a product of Capital Public Radio’s multimedia documentary arm, The View from Here, featured two hours of radio documentaries. Magazine-style features, video, community engagement events and discussions about high school dropout issues accompanied the series. The project launched at the beginning of the school year in September.
Unyque was pregnant at 17 years old. After having her baby and moving in with her boyfriend and his mother – neither of whom completed high school – she received her high school diploma in May.
“I almost cried this morning but I stopped myself because I’m very strong,” Unyque said in the documentary on her graduation day.
Geronimo, a 17-year-old high school dropout, is one of 14 children born to Mexican immigrants. Encircled in a life of drugs and gangs, school just isn’t appealing to him anymore.
Roosevelt, 22, dropped out to help his family when his father was dying. Now he’s back at school in a program that balances academia with construction work so students receive a stipend.
“School is always going to be there, so I felt like that spending time with my dad was more important than spending time at school,” Roosevelt said in “Class Dismissed.”
Gina, 24, dropped out of high school and served time in jail. She was ready to turn her life around after that. She received her high school diploma and now is enrolled at San Joaquin Delta College.
Simply put, 1 in 4 Californians is a high school dropout, said Catherine Stifter, producer at The View From Here. Stifter said California’s dropout rate on the whole is close to the nation’s at 25 percent non-completion, but some high schools in the Central Valley in the past decade had up to a 50 percent non-completion rate for incoming freshman. The region is “plagued with gang activity and violence and drug use,” she said. The Central Valley dropout rates have improved, but are still among the state’s worst.
Data from the California Department of Education shows that African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans drop out at higher rates and have lower graduation rates than their white peers, Stifter said. She said the documentary’s subjects were chosen to represent the statistics.
Unyque is a spirited mother with hope for the future. Conley said a question arose in editorial meetings: why portray her story?
“Our executive director Joe Barr would always ask the question, ‘This is not a story about heroes, per say,’” he said. “‘We want the real truth about what it’s like to be a dropout.’”
But Stifter said they wanted Unyque’s story to show success even when facing challenges many others face: a poor family, a poor neighborhood, an unsupportive birth family and a current family full of high school dropouts.
“I think that although Unyque was the person at the center of our story, I think Unyque’s story has a bigger circle to it,” Stifter said. “You can really see through her story what it takes to help somebody graduate when they’re facing a lot of obstacles.”
Challenges to their reporting included distance. The production team was in Sacramento – sometimes up to 250 miles away from its reporters, Conley said.
Stifter said the reporters and their subjects bonded across racial, socioeconomic and age differences.
“[Reporters] were able to bridge that trust and able to really get to know these kids in a way that really felt real,” Stifter staid.
She said she encourages her reporters to hang out and get a meal with their subjects, in order to connect, observe and get an authentic sense of their lives. Even in meetings leading up to the project, she and her staff listened to interview clips and evaluated whether they accurately represented the subjects.
Capital Public Radio created a community engagement arm called RView209 and 209Talks which used the stories of the youth to spark conversations about the high dropout rate in the community. The station is still working to track the impact of the project, Stifter said, but knows that people have paid attention.
Stifter said she wondered who would have known Geronimo, Unyque, Roosevelt and Gina’s stories if Capital Public Radio hadn’t done “Class Dismissed,” and was grateful for their willingness to share.
“Everybody really does have a story to tell,” Stifter said. “Sometimes, it just takes asking.”