Former high school dropouts get diplomas and second chances as adults

Pamela Robinson addresses fellow graduates from the South Baltimore Learning Center during their graduation ceremony last week.
Pamela Robinson addresses fellow graduates from the South Baltimore Learning Center during their graduation ceremony last week. (Jay Willetts)

Pamela Robinson finally got closure. After decades of setting aside her own ambitions to support those of her children, the 62-year-old fulfilled a longtime aspiration when she received her high school diploma last week.

The lifelong Baltimore resident shed more than 40 years of regret over not completing her schooling and basked in the applause and cheers of family and friends at a festive graduation ceremony at the American Visionary Art Museum.


"I just wanted my diploma, whether I get a job or not, just for myself," she said. "Just to complete something,"

Robinson was one of 35 graduates who finished their high school education through the nonprofit South Baltimore Learning Center. The graduates either passed the General Educational Development (GED) exam, or completed the National External Diploma Program (NEDP), earning them a Maryland high school diploma.

"A lot of people don't live to see my age and haven't completed anything, or some people live to see longer and never complete anything, but at least I have completed something," she said.

The themes of fulfillment and second chances loomed large at the ceremony — among the graduates as well as their supporters.

"I'm so proud of her," said Dometrices Clinton, 36, Robinson's son. He described how he and his sister took turns driving their mother to and from school.

"We supported her and made sure everything is right so she can have this graduation," he said.

Robinson, a mother of four, left high school after she got pregnant in 10th grade. She always wanted to return to school but ended up working as a laundry attendant for 20 years until the job became too physically taxing. She now has five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

This year the learning center celebrated its 25th anniversary of helping Baltimoreans get back on an education track. More than 90 percent of the students they serve have incomes at or below the federal poverty level, according to center administrators. The center's programs reach more than 1,000 adults per year, said Annmarie Westerfield, the nonprofit's executive director.

"They have children, they have jobs, they have lives, and they are still showing up everyday working on getting that degree," she said. "It's inspiring to see them."

Westerfield said although the students faced barriers earlier in their lives that caused them to drop out, their diplomas represent not just overcoming those barriers but opening new avenues for career opportunities and higher education.

This was the case with Niverro Rodriguez, 19, who will now attend Baltimore City Community College. He said his long-term plan involves studying medicine at the University of Maryland.

"I have a whole future planned out," he said.

Kevin Brown, 33, received his GED 16 years after dropping out of the now-closed Southwestern Senior High School. He said not having a diploma prevented him from finding stable work or following his passion in graphic design.

"I always wanted to be a cartoonist for Marvel and those opportunities were shut down because I didn't have a high school diploma," he said.


Brown, a Pigtown resident, tried several city programs to get his diploma but none of them worked until he enrolled at the learning Center. Even then, stress from a death in his family in 2011 and working two jobs caused him to drop out again.

He returned to the center in 2014. Brown will next study screenwriting and animation at Morgan State University.

"I feel better having this one thing knocked down," he said. "The more things I put in my bag and I obtain ....., the better I feel about pursuing my goals."

Jolanda Briggs always had goals for herself and her son, Tyler Gore. So after he dropped out from North County High School in Glen Burnie she encouraged him to get his diploma and decided to get her diploma too. They enrolled at the center together, helped each other with homework assignments, and studied together for the GED test.

"I didn't want him to give up on it," Briggs said, looking at her son by her side, both of them in identical caps and gowns. "I know that he actually finished instead of being one of the dropouts."