By Joshua Benton
When Angelica Vega dropped off her son, Arnulfo, at kindergarten each morning, the boy sometimes became confused.
“I’d tell him, ‘Mama’s going to school,'” Ms. Vega said. “He’d say, ‘You go to school, too, Mama?’ Then, at night, we’d do our homework side by side.”
Ms. Vega, 21, dropped out of high school shortly after Arnulfo was born. In a way, she followed a trend – no one in her family had ever received a standard high school diploma.
She has a husband and a good job, and many would have excused her if she hadn’t done anything about her education’s early end. But she knew what she wanted.
“I was going to stick to it until I finished,” she said.
On Friday night, Ms. Vega walked across the stage as one of about 200 graduates of the Dallas Can! Academy. Dallas Can! is a charter school that specializes in dropout recovery.
“She wanted to get through more than anything else,” said her school counselor, Pat Wilbert.
Ms. Vega was a successful freshman at Woodrow Wilson High School when she, like thousands of Dallas girls each year, got pregnant. She married her boyfriend, Arnulfo, gave birth to Arnulfo Vega Jr., then tried going back to school. But her son had health problems, and she quickly decided she needed to stay at home.
When Arnulfo was 2, she took a job as a production assistant at Glasfloss Industries, which manufactures air filters. But she soon started thinking about what she had missed by dropping out. “One day I said, ‘I need to go back to school,'” she said.
She enrolled at Dallas Can! in fall 1999. Her employer allowed her to reduce her work schedule. But the stress seemed too much for her. “I was a mother, a wife, an employee and a student all at the same time,” she said. “It was a struggle.”
She dropped out for a second time. But the people around her wanted to make sure she wasn’t gone for long.
“My counselor kept calling me, saying ‘Come back! You’ve got to come back!'” Her co-workers at Glasfloss reiterated the same message. “They knew how important it was and how much it would mean to me,” she said. “They said, ‘You need your diploma now for the rest of your life.'”
But it was her mother, Josie Facundo, who nailed the point home: “I told her, ‘You need an education out there. I couldn’t get one, but there are people here who want to help you get one.’ And she said, ‘OK, mama.'”
Last fall, with Arnulfo enrolling in kindergarten, Ms. Vega decided it was back-to-school time for her, too. At age 20, she knew it was her last chance to get a standard high school diploma.
Texas law allows students to be enrolled in public schools until they turn 21; when they reach 21, they’re allowed to finish the current school year. Ms. Vega turned 21 in March, which meant if she didn’t earn her diploma by June, a GED would be her only option.
Her older sister had gotten a GED after she had dropped out of high school. But no one in her family had ever received a standard diploma.
“I had no more time. I had to go then or I was lost,” Ms. Vega said. “I had worked so hard for what? Not to finish?”
So it was back to school and back to the schedule that had stressed her before: work from 8 a.m. to 12:45 p.m., school from 1 to 5 p.m.
She had had trouble with the math portion of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, which she had to pass to graduate. “She worked so hard, coming in for extra tutoring, doing whatever it took,” Ms. Wilbert said.
“She took the math test, and she passed,” she said. “So I called her into my office when I had the results. I told her to sit down, but she wouldn’t. ‘Oh my gosh, Miss Pat, what’s wrong?’ I said, ‘Angelica, I have your results.’
“It just about gave me goose bumps to tell her she had passed. She was so excited, she almost passed out. I screamed and hollered, ‘Don’t fall over!'”
End in sight
Once she had passed the TAAS, the end was in sight. Ms. Vega got through a final English class this spring, then finished her last required class in June: a semester of gym.
With that behind her, Ms. Vega is busy planning her next step: enrolling at El Centro College this fall. She’s not sure yet what she’ll study, although she thinks she might want to be a teacher, or maybe a pediatrician.
But on Friday night, she didn’t need to focus on the future. The present was joyous enough.
“I’m so happy,” she said. “I made it through – that’s all that counts.”