CLAYTON — Last spring, Ronald Speier was calling the Partida household nearly every day; and it was early.
It felt early, at least, for then 16-year-old Alfonso Partida, who was sleeping in on school days.
In December, 2010, Partida had been expelled for violating school rules.
“I’ve had some very direct conversations with Alfonso about his choices,” says Speier, a student advocate at the high school. He had followed Partida and others from Selma Middle School to Smithfield-Selma Senior High School.
“I want to see them graduate,” he says, joking that he won’t retire – for the third time – until they do.
Speier has been at SSS for three years, and the drop out rate has gone down by 50 percent over the last two. Between the 2010-2011 school year and this year, dropouts have decreased so far from 98 students to only 63. In the state as a whole, Hispanics had the highest drop out rate in the 2010-11 school year, with more Hispanic males dropping out than Hispanic females.
“We’re very proud of the work he’s doing, assisting the school district as a whole,” said principal Michael Taylor. Johnston County saw a 10.9 percent decrease over all in dropout rates between 2010-09 school year and 2010-11.
Speier creates relationships with all at-risk students at SSS. He even pins notes to the backpacks of elementary school siblings, trying to locate the transient immigrant mother of a child who’s been skipping school.
“He’d call me in the morning and I didn’t want to talk, but my mom would make me talk to him,” said Partida, who is now set to graduate from SSS in June.
After expulsion, students can reapply to come back to school once that school year ends. Speier encouraged Partida, who was working his way up the management ladder at McDonald’s, to write a letter to the school board asking to re-enroll.
The board sent Partida to South Campus (an alternative middle school and high school for at-risk children), to catch up on his credits.
There, Partida excelled. He helped the other kids with their work, and he was recognized for a character award for his compassion at the December, 2011 school board meeting.
“The way I see it, between a year ago and today, my mentality has changed a lot; what I say, what I do, how I act around people,” Partida said.
Now, he’s busy finishing his senior project at SSS and is applying for a 13-month program in collision repair at UTI in Houston, Texas.
“He could be assistant manager at McDonald’s if he wanted,” Speier said. “But he’s going to UTI.”
At Clayton Middle School, ESL teacher Maritza Rosado tries to engage English-as-a-second-Language (ESL) parents long before they run into problems in high school, stressing the importance of graduating and going on to some form of higher education.
“I think I have built relationships with the Hispanic parents here. They don’t only come to me for academic stuff, they come to me for other basic necessities,” said Rosado, who built Clayton Middle’s ESL program from scratch in 2005.
Rosado said she can understand a parent getting frustrated. If their child has already dropped out or been expelled, the priority often changes to the child getting a job.
But Rosado said she tries to speak to the value of education.
“They didn’t have the opportunities their kids have here,” She said. “I think that’s maybe one of the reasons they stay here, so the kids can continue to improve and to better themselves.”
Speier said he knows a lot of parents from Latin America who only went to school through the sixth grade – high school isn’t free in many Latin American countries.
“I tell them, education is their opportunity to break out of that vice grip they’re in to keep them in a certain place,” he said.
Partida was born in North Carolina. His father, who dropped out of school in Mexico at age 13, made a career as a mechanic in the states.
Looking at his father during those six months of expulsion, Partida said he wasn’t sure he wanted to graduate high school.
“I told him, you stopped going to school and started working, and look at the money you make. But he told me, ‘you had to work really hard to where I am now.’”
In five years, Partida said he sees himself working at a collision repair shop near home, helping support his parents, and ultimately owning his own shop.
“I’m grateful (to Mr. Speier.) “There was a time where I was like, I don’t want to go back to school. I just want to work.”
Rosado understands the challenges for more recent immigrants; she came to New York from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico when she was16.
“I really didn’t want t go back to school (after the first day),” she said. “I felt very smart when I lived in my country, and when I came here I felt very stupid. But I just kept working and trying to do better.”
Rosado attributes her success to the same factors she hopes will help her own students today; familial support and an ESL program that combines mentoring with academic assistance.
While the school system is seeing more ESL students starting in kindergarten rather than coming in as new immigrants, some families are still transient.
Speier said it can be hard sometimes to get in touch with parents when a child is at risk. If the parents are undocumented, they might not register their addresses and could be afraid to come in to school to discuss their children.
And that’s where the home visits come in. Speier often can’t be found in his office – he’s likely out traversing the neighborhoods, hoping to catch a parent at home to hatch a plan for their child’s academic success.
Outside the school’s main office, Speier jokes with a student’s mother. If her son doesn’t keep up the good work, Speier knows where he lives – and his sister, too.