Going Door-To-Door To Get Dropouts Back In Class

, Posted: Fri, September 13 2013 at 10:03 PM, Updated: Fri, September 13 2013 at 10:05 PM

What does it take to bring dropouts back to school? One answer may involve a Portland Public School program that goes door-to-door Saturday to find young people who haven't been coming to school.

They've gotten phone calls and postcards already. Signs on TriMet buses featuring returning students will remind them, too.

Rob Manning caught up with a woman who did come back – and the outreach worker who talked her into it.

Students leave school for all kinds of reasons. Kervencia Limage dropped out at 17 - at the same time she left home. She says she got in with a bad crowd, and was scraping by.

Then, last January, she stopped by Benson High School with a friend, to visit some teachers they knew.

Cheryl James noticed Limage in the hall. James works at Benson turning dropouts into students again.

"I just happened to run into her, and so her friend that she was with explained to me who she was and - two credits to graduate from high school. So that was my cue to jump on her," James said.

Kervencia Limage was looking at her high school transcript, when Cheryl James walked up, and gave this pitch: "I just asked her what was keeping her from school, and how we could work together to get her back, so she could graduate. She was way too close, not to finish out."

Nothing had convinced Limage to go back to school -- not phone calls, postcards, or hints from friends. No one knocked on her door, as Portland Public Schools will do Saturday, at more than 200 homes.

Portland Public Schools is trying to improve on its 63-percent graduation rate, which auditors identified as the worst among Oregon's big districts.

Limage remembers with a laugh that the chance meeting in the Benson hallway didn't convince her at once.

"As I was walking out, I told my friend - 'You see what you got me into? Now I've got to be back here.' But I'm glad that she did that - I know I wouldn't have come back, because she really did stay on top of me," Limage said.

When Kervencia Limage walked into Benson, she was six months from her 21st birthday. Cheryl James says that dictated an aggressive timeline for those two credits.

"After 21, you can no longer receive a free public education," James said.

Limage attended the Alliance program at Benson High -- one of several programs Portland has with flexible schedules for returning students.

Limage often spent long hours at the school. But returning students often have complicated lives and Cheryl James says she heard, when Kervencia Limage wasn't showing up.

James called her and learned another reason Limage was worried about her upcoming birthday. James recalls what Limage said.

"They've cut my hours, so I'm taking everybody's shift that I can. Along with the fact of I'm going to be 21 and I won't be able to go to school -- if I turn 21 and I don't have my papers in for my green card, then I can't get ID, can't continue to work - and I'm like - 'whoa, wait a minute, what?.' "

Limage was born in Haiti, but has lived in the U.S. since she was four.

James helped Limage sketch plans to get both her diploma and green card.

So Limage returned to school. As her June birthday approached, her diploma seemed within reach. Then she checked on her updated transcript and found she had overestimated how many credits she'd earned.

"And I was like 'Oh my God, I'm never going to do this.' I think three days off work. I was here all day, just doing math, and I did all my tests. And they when they finally said 'You're good.' I was like 'Yes!' And then I went and told Cheryl. I did my church dance, I was like 'I'm graduating, I'm walking.' It felt amazing, it did," Limage recalls.

Limage wants to pursue a criminal justice degree at Portland State, but can't make that happen until her green card comes through.

She credits the relationship she built with Cheryl James for getting her to this point.

"Generally because I am by myself, I don't really have too much adults in my life, so for Cheryl to come into my life and barely know me, and say 'Hey, I see a lot of good in you' - that made me feel really good about myself. I wanted to do better for myself because somebody else had seen so much good in me," Limage said.

As the three of us walk out of Benson, we run into a mother and son. The young man had gotten a phone call from another outreach worker, asking why he wasn't in school. Cheryl James walks him down the hall. She says the call got the boy's attention - because someone noticed he'd left.

Saturday, James and a host of staff and volunteers will be going door-to door, letting plenty of other kids know someone's noticed they're not in class.

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