It’s graduation season and I’m a sucker for a look-whose-grandmother-finally-graduated story.
Well, here’s another one.
Only, this is also a story about persistence and resilience and a 65-year-old woman’s long-ago whispered promise to herself that one day, somehow, some way, she would go back to school and earn a high school diploma. Twyanna Williams, who dropped out to help financially when her parents split, didn’t know how or when, just that she wanted to do it.
“I felt sad for myself for coming out of school and seeing my friends graduating but I was working,” she recalled. “My focus was on surviving.”
After she left Bartram High School decades ago, her life was marked by hard work and struggle, beginning with her first full-time job at the McDonald’s at 17th and Walnut Streets. Over the years, she got by doing mostly low-level jobs at local hospitals and hotels, eventually retiring from the Sheraton Hotel. But through it all, Williams never lost sight of her dream, often reminded of it as she sat through a steady stream of graduation ceremonies — first for her two children, and later for her four grandchildren.
“Everyone deserves a high school diploma,” Williams said. “The older I got, the more I wanted it.”
Then, a year ago, Williams realized there was nothing standing in the way of her long-held goal of returning to school.
So even though schools were going virtual, she enrolled in Philly’s Educational Options Programs (EOP), which allows adult students to finish credits toward a high school diploma.
“This year was extremely difficult,” said Audrey Nock, principal of the EOP program at South Philadelphia High School, where Williams enrolled. “You take an older student who had to log onto the computer, figure out Google classroom; how to do a Power Point presentation; how to travel from one Google classroom to another Google classroom, come to the main office virtually; they had to do a senior exit project … and then present it to the community.”
On Monday, not only will Williams finally get her diploma, she has the distinction of being one of two valedictorians in her category B class of returning students ages 40 and over at South Philly High. Her selection was based on class participation, grades, and courses completed. Commencement exercises will take place at 4 p.m. at the South Philadelphia Supersite at 10th and Bigler Streets.
Philly’s graduation rate is only about 72%. I would love for the city to get to the point where every single student graduated from high school or at least close to it. Programs like Educational Options can help fill the gap and are alternatives that more dropouts should consider. Classes are free and held from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m. at three locations — South Philly, Ben Franklin and Northeast high schools.
“It is not a GED program,” Nock said. “During normal class of the EOP program, the students have a prom. They have a senior dinner. They have senior awards just like a traditional high school. So the goal is to give them a traditional high school education regardless of their age.”
That’s why Williams wanted it. On Monday, she finally will get to wear a cap and gown and walk onstage. It will be a proud moment — not just for her but for her entire community.