Gerilyn Rodriguez said she had started to disengage from high school even before her junior year at Miami Carol City Senior High School in Florida.
“I do not have a good history with school. I would just skip a lot—most of the time—and my grades were pretty bad,” the 18-year-old recalled. “So when the pandemic hit, we had been given online courses obviously, but they were so hard for me. You would just be on the Zoom call for like the next three hours. And the teacher would just be talking and talking and talking, and I would just be there falling asleep. Honestly, I just had no motivation to [attend] this school, so I started falling behind a lot and I went through a lot of mental problems.”
While Florida allowed districts to waive statewide testing requirements for 2019-20 and 2020-21, Rodriguez was behind by 12 credits when she left her comprehensive high school and had not yet passed several end-of-course tests needed to graduate on time in May. She turned to Miami-Dade’s Acceleration Academy, a hybrid dropout-recovery program, to prepare for and pass the tests.
It has been challenging to recommit to school. Rodriguez had been working part time since she was 15, and “because of COVID, I had taken the opportunity to just go full-in on work.”
Working 9-to-5 five days a week, Rodriguez said she made anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 a week selling insurance on commission. After ongoing fights with her parents, she moved out this spring and had no plans to return to school until her mother gave her an ultimatum.
“My mom was like, ‘I’m gonna give you one year, ' " Rodriguez said “ ‘If you can prove to me that doing this work is gonna be better for you than finishing school, then you can keep doing it.’ But obviously, I failed to show my mom; that job is obviously not better than school, because it wasn’t something that was permanent. It was temporary.”
Events aligned to get Rodriguez back to school. She lost her full-time job at the same time her mother had surgery and became bedridden, so Rodriguez moved back home to care for her. Around the same time, Rodriguez was contacted by one of the school’s “graduation advocates"—mentors that individually work with students to help students stay on track academically and make postsecondary plans—who helped arrange a schedule that let Rodriguez attend class mostly from home, with extensive check-ins with teachers and counselors.
“I’m a little bit closer to [my graduation advocate] Eric because he’s the one who always reaches out to me when I’m falling off the track. And he’s the one who’s helped me enroll and reenroll,” she said.
Now, Rodriguez wakes early every morning to make breakfast for her mother and 12-year-old sister. Several times a week, she shuttles her mother to clinic appointments for an ongoing post-surgery infection. She sells insurance online and by phone for five to six hours a day, before tidying the house and making dinner.
As for school, Rodriguez said she squeezes in her last four credits of English and physical education virtually for a few hours whenever she can: in the early morning, around lunchtime, or even in the evenings. Her employer has promised her a full-time job again once she completes her diploma, and Rodriguez hopes to attend college and eventually own her own insurance business.
Constant outreach has helped keep Rodriguez on track, she said.
“Not all kids are comfortable with reaching out to people first, you know, … but at least I’m glad that Eric reached out to me because now I know I have a really good teacher that does care about me,” she said. “I promise you that is the only reason that I’m actually doing my schoolwork today. I’m actually motivated because I can feel that somebody else cares about what I’m doing and took the time out of their day and sat down with me and helped me.”