Teen mother looking forward to graduating, going to college
By Sarah Nagem
When Karessa Gray got pregnant her junior year of high school, she knew things weren’t going to be easy.
But Karessa was determined to not follow the path of many teenage mothers. She didn’t want to be a high school dropout.
“No, I never considered dropping out,” says Karessa, who will turn 18 on Christmas Day. “I always said I wanted what’s best for my baby.”
Her daughter, Amora, is 5 months old now. And Karessa is on track to graduate from Henderson Independent School this spring.
Karessa is participating in a new program for Rowan-Salisbury schools that allows some students to graduate with fewer credits.
School leaders say the program, which the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education approved this fall, is meant to help students just like Karessa ó those students who have special circumstances.
For Karessa, taking fewer classes means more time she can spend with her baby.
For the school system, an easier high school option might lead to fewer dropouts ó at least that’s what school officials are hoping.
The class clown
Karessa says she earned good grades in elementary and middle school.
Academics didn’t hinder her progress; instead, she admits, her own attitude did.
“I stayed in trouble,” Karessa says of her experience at Woodleaf Elementary. “I made a lot of bad choices growing up.”
She tried to be the class clown, yelling out when she shouldn’t have.
Karessa’s mother, Kathy, says she thinks her daughter acted out in school because she finished her classwork before many of her peers.
When Karessa didn’t have anything to do, her mother says, she got bored.
“My child has always been smart,” Kathy says.
Things got worse in middle school, when Karessa repeatedly got suspended.
She’d go to school on a Monday, she says, and get suspended for two to five days for acting out. Then the process would start over again.
Karessa says she developed a reputation among teachers at West Rowan Middle School.
“When I tried to be good, they didn’t think I could be good,” she says. “They thought I would be bad.”
She went to Henderson for her eighth-grade year. The alternative school was a better fit for her, she says.
“They understand you,” Karessa says. “At Henderson, they understand you have issues and problems you have to deal with.”
Although she liked it at Henderson, Karessa went to West Rowan High School when she entered the ninth-grade.
But her experience there was much like middle school. She says she got in trouble for talking during class.
She continually got suspended, which would make her mad. That’s when she would get an attitude with teachers and administrators, Karessa says.
Looking back, she thinks the schools shouldn’t have been so quick to suspend her.
“They could have got down to what really happened and understood both sides of the story. … They could have talked,” Karessa says.
She returned to Henderson, where she met a boy she liked.
She turned 16.
Still just a child herself, she was about to become a mother.
An easier option
A dozen or so students at Henderson are in the “differentiated diploma program,” which means they can graduate after earning fewer credits than the school system requires.
Ken Sherrill, the principal at Henderson, says he is “certain” those students would have dropped out if it weren’t for this new option.
The Rowan-Salisbury School System requires students to earn 28 credits in high school. The state requires only 20, but school systems can set their own higher standards.
Rowan-Salisbury students in the differentiated program need 21 credits.
School leaders hope this new option will offer hope for students on the brink of dropping out.
“We’re trying to give them some light at the end of the tunnel,” says Kathy McDuffie, director of secondary education for the school system.
But McDuffie makes it clear the program isn’t for everyone ó students just looking for a quicker way out of high school need not apply, she says.
This program, she says, is for students who fell behind and repeated the ninth grade once or twice, then got serious about their education.
It’s for kids with special circumstances, McDuffie says. Maybe a student was in a car accident and fell behind with schoolwork because of a long hospital stay. Or maybe a student doesn’t have a choice about working while in school.
“With the economy, maybe they really have to support the family,” McDuffie says.
And it’s for students, like Karessa, who get pregnant.
“She will soon be able to help support her child,” McDuffie says.
If students in this program take certain courses, including enough math classes, they can go on to a four-year university in North Carolina, she says.
Karessa is grateful she can finish school with fewer credits. This semester, she has to go to school only on Fridays, where she takes foods courses.
“I loved school,” Karessa says of her experience. “I still do. I hate it’s my last year.”
‘Important to somebody’
Karessa saw a bright side to her pregnancy ó she thought it would be a way to prove she was responsible.
And she was excited about having someone else in her life to love.
Karessa has lots of support from her family and her boyfriend’s family.
There’s always someone around to babysit her daughter, she says.
Kathy, Karessa’s mother, knows what it’s like to become a parent at a young age. She was 17 when she had Karessa’s older brother, she says.
Kathy is also supportive of Karessa’s 17-year-old sister, who has a baby about Amora’s age.
Karessa’s father died in a car accident when she was 5.
Karessa doesn’t want her education to end with high school.
“She’s going to college next,” Kathy says.
But in the meantime, Karessa is looking for a job. She moved out of her mother’s house in the Woodleaf community, and she and her daughter are living with her boyfriend’s family in Salisbury.
Karessa wants to attend Winston-Salem State University, where she would like to study nursing, accounting or psychology.
She has known all along she wasn’t going to become just another statistic.
“I used to tell (my mother) I was going to college,” Karessa says. “I was going to be important to somebody.”
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