Every year, nearly 1 million students in the United States drop out of high school.
Catherine Harrison, 18, was one of them.
Yet on Wednesday, June 11 at 7 pm, she and 68 other students of Riverside City College and Riverside County Office of Education’s Gateway College & Career Academy can call themselves high school graduates after a ceremony at RCC’s Landis Performing Arts Center.
Gateway College & Career Academy is a charter school that helps youth age 16 to 21 who are behind in high school credits, not on track for graduation, or have dropped out earn a high school diploma while obtaining college credits towards a chosen college career path. Gateway College & Career Academy is an early college high school program based on the Gateway to College Model currently operating in 43 communities nationwide that was first developed by Portland Community College under a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The RCC program provides students with monies to cover tuition, books and supplies. Students are able to complete their high school diploma while simultaneously earning credits toward a college degree or certificate.
In fall 2012, Harrison, then 16 years old, entered the program after attending three high schools in three years. She carried a 1.38 grade point average and had completed just 83.5 credits toward a high school diploma. Next week, she’ll graduate from the Gateway to College program with over 200 units and will have earned 19 college units with a 3.51 GPA. She’ll continue to work toward her associate degree at RCC and plans on applying for the nursing program.
“The Gateway program proved essential in me reaching my educational goals,” said Harrison. “The staff understands every situation. They understand when you need help, if you have medical problems or even family problems. They will work with you. If you’re struggling they’re willing to help. They want nothing but to see us succeed.”
Harrison’s education struggles began as a latchkey child in middle school. With her mother, Lorena, and father, Lawrence, working in Los Angeles, Harrison was looked after by her older sisters, but it wasn’t long before she found herself alone as her sisters gravitated more toward their friends and less to their studies.
“My parents did everything they could to give us children what we needed,” she said. “I remember my parents always coming home with presents, but I didn’t get to see them much.”
Her high school career began at West Valley High School in Hemet after moving from Riverside. She seldom made it to class, however, and it wasn’t long before isolation gave way to anger. Being away from friends was a hardship, and when her father suffered a life-threatening heart attack, Harrison lost it completely.
“I had so much sorrow and anger in me,” Harrison said. “I barely spent time with my father and he was going to die and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
She spent her first year of high school doing “absolutely nothing, following in the footsteps of her sisters.” Eventually, she returned to Riverside, moving in with aunt and cousins. However, trouble followed. “Hanging with the wrong crowd” eventually began a life of drugs.
“I was literally going nowhere,” Harrison said. “I preferred to destroy my brain cells than do any of my work.”
She enrolled in Ramona High School and was determined to graduate in 2013. After finishing her sophomore year with passing grades, she was uprooted again.by a move that forced her into Arlington High School boundaries. She lasted two weeks before being transferred to the Riverside Virtual School, an independent program. Harrison said it simply allowed her more free time to run the streets.
“The whole year I only passed three classes,” she said. “I was never going to graduate.”
It was then she noticed a flier for the Gateway to College Program. She said filling out the application was a life-changing event.
“I am beyond happy and excited to finally be graduating.” Harrison said. “My family and friends have been supportive through the process here at Gateway and I am will be so ecstatic to see them at my graduation. My father is still alive as well and will also be attending my graduation.”