For four teenagers on Pueblo’s Eastside, the fight isn’t in the street, it’s in school. Two dropouts, 18 and 17 years old, a 17 year old on the verge and a 15 year old doing everything he can to avoid what so many around him have done, all have one thing in common, a disdain for the education system that they all feel has let them down.
In Pueblo, District 60 has a dropout rate slightly higher than the state average of 2.4 percent and for the 2013-2014 school year, D60 was at 2.9 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Education. The district decreased from 3.7 percent the previous year, making Pueblo D60 one of the few districts in the state to see a decline.
Benny Guerra, recently turned 17 years old, has a typical dropout story. He has a history of low grades and bad behavior at school. But not a lack of willingness to learn; even though he lacks the motivation to return to school. No one is telling him to go back and when he was in school, nothing made him excited about being there.
Benny has had some issues with controlling his anger, and he says that didn’t affect him in school. Even though he was excited for school, Benny’s eight-year stay was a rough one. Elementary school wasn’t where the problem was obvious, but it might have started there.
He talked about his years of being frustrated with standardized testing and being a bad tester. He says that the schools never did anything to correct the problem. For him things just gradually got worse.
“I never really felt confident moving on to the next grade, but they would still send you on, regardless if you’re struggling,” Benny said. “But definitely in middle school. They didn’t prepare me for high school.”
While there was a pattern back to their middle school years where most talked about having a bad experience, which foreshadowed their troubles in high school, 18-year-old Thomas Lopez is different.
He was far more confident about the next step and he expected to do great as he transitioned to high school.
Thomas Lopez, who likes to go by Lopez, undoubtedly has a passion for learning, but that didn’t matter much when he switched from homeschooling to Central High School. He felt overwhelmed and underprepared.
Coming from homeschooling, where he could wake up later and start his classes when he wanted, made for a difficult and an abrupt change. At Central High School, it was back to the set schedule that he had never really liked and the teachers around him quickly lost his attention.
At 16, Lopez says he was eager to learn and show excitement to be in high school. He hustled for that year at Central. But then that came to a startling end. After about a year, school officials pulled Lopez in to talk to a counselor and explained to him that he hadn’t progressed like they wanted him to throughout the year.
“They told me that I hadn’t progressed to their expectations, so they didn’t give me all of the credits that I should have gotten,” Lopez said. “I really felt like I did great, but in the end, I had nothing to show for it.”
His situation was complicated because they didn’t explain to him why he didn’t receive the credits, he tells me.
Today, Lopez still doesn’t know what happened that year, why he didn’t progress to the school’s expectations and what he could have done better. Whether or not I’m getting the entire story on this, could be questioned but today he’s on a different path. He is self-teaching himself everyday by reading anything he can get his hands on and is in the process of getting his GED.
Lopez and Benny are both on a hard road to prove themselves without help and without structure but are determined. Months from now, they both plan to have a GED. From there, both say they will try to accomplish dreams beyond a GED. Benny wants to go to barber school and Lopez hopes to attend college as soon as he’s able.
“Sometimes I feel like an outcast,” Lopez said. “They look at dropouts differently and that’s why I don’t really like that term.”
Since neither are enrolled in school right now, their days look a lot different than the average teenager. Without seven class periods and the structure of school their only structure is that which they set themselves.
Lopez schedule is loss and fluid. He wakes up, gets ready for the day and then breaks out a book for some quick reading.
“I’m a nerd,” Lopez said. “I love to learn and it’s always exciting when I get the chance to learn something new.”
He exercises his brain and then he exercises physically. Just down the street from the apartment complex where he lives, there’s a basketball court where he shoots around. Sometimes he will walk across the east side to El Centro Del Quinto Sol Recreation Center to play against others.
With smooth skills on the court and a well put together basketball IQ, he plays his heart out on the hardwood for the couple of hours that he’s there. Then, he heads back home until he can do it again the next day.
In the same apartment complex, Benny is waking up around the same time and starting his day off a little differently. He might get his creative juices flowing with a little free-hand sketching. He explained that he can get lost in drawing for hours at a time, before he realizes he should probably get out of the apartment for a bit. That’s when he starts his walk to El Centro to play basketball just like Lopez.
“I would love to play in the NBA one day, but I know that I won’t get there without hard work,” Benny said. “I just get on the court and play until I can’t play anymore.”
Once the sky starts to get a dark blue tint and the sun starts to lower out of the sky, they know they better head out, so they don’t have to walk home in the dark.
Benny’s little brother, Derrick Guerra, a 15-year-old from Risley Middle School, has fought hard to stay on track in school. He’s about to make the transition to high school, and while he hasn’t dropped out he has a story very similar to his brother’s. He also has prevalent anger issues like his brother, but he has shown more self-control and has been able to keep it in check. He says it hasn’t interfered with school.
Similar to his brother, he shows a slight lack of focus and some issues with keeping his grades up.
From time to time, like many other kids growing up on the east side of Pueblo the pressures of being with the wrong crowd is a big threat to staying in school and moving forward.
“I’m not too worried about getting caught up in the wrong crowd, because I did that and I have moved on; I’m more worried about school,” Derrick explained. “I’m just gonna stick to going to school and hope that I don’t have to drop out, too.”
Derrick is a kid who has options. One of those options is to drop out, but he has seen how hard the path could be after making that decision. He also knows what keeps him moving forward. He still worries though, knowing what it’s like to get bored in school and to not have much faith in classes keeping his attention. That’s why he’s more optimistic about going to high school, because he has made the decision to go to a different school than his brother.
The path for dropping out and returning to the system isn’t unknown to these men. Eastsider, Marc Butts, is returning after being dropped his last semester because of truancy. Butts’ grades were low, but he managed to get most of the credits he needed to move on to his senior year, if he decided to return.
After some struggling and repetitive bad grades, the school dropped Butts for the remainder of the 2014-2015 school year. From time to time, he skipped classes, rebelled against his homework workloads and didn’t take some of the testing seriously, but he never really gave up on the idea of school.
Confused and frustrated, Butts contemplated what it would be like if he didn’t return to school. He considered just getting his GED, he thought about working and then he was able to come to a conclusion that he had to change things around and finish high school with a diploma.
Butts now has a job lined up once school starts and he has set some goals. Good grades and hard work are in his near future.
“I really didn’t want to go back, at first,” Butts said. “But, I’m this close and I know I can do it. In the end it’s worth it.”
All four young men have plans to defy the odds and the stereotypes that surround the term “dropout.” They each have an idea in mind about what success means and how to eventually get there. For the kids who will continue on with a GED, they know they will have to work harder than their counterparts. They’ll need more discipline to finish high school on their own terms, their own way. But the kids who want to fight it out until graduation day are still battling a system that seems to beat them down. What the four boys have in common isn’t just a struggle to finish high school, it’s a desire to keep going and move on to college, a profession and a life that is not synonymous with “dropout.”