Tough road makes diplomas that much sweeter

Adults receive their high school equivalency degrees
Monica Rivera, right, shakes hands with Shelette Pleat, early literacy coordinator for Schenectady schools, on Thursday.
Monica Rivera, right, shakes hands with Shelette Pleat, early literacy coordinator for Schenectady schools, on Thursday.

Shelette Pleat never graduated from high school. She has a master’s degree from the University at Albany and a bachelor’s degree from the College of St. Rose, and says she’s already shopping for a place to study for a doctorate.

She grew up in Troy as one of six kids in a single-parent household; her father was incarcerated and her mom raised her and her siblings.

“I’m every statistic that you read about, because I’m also a high school drop out,” Pleat, now early literacy coordinator for Schenectady schools, said as she addressed graduates of the city’s high school equivalency program Thursday night. “The one thing I did have was a strong mom.”

After she dropped out of high school during her senior year, Pleat’s strong mom had just one question for her: What’s your plan?

So Pleat started as a student at Schenectady County Community College, where she started a long road toward her GED, which she earned at age 21. She transferred to Hudson Valley Community College and eventually to St. Rose – “from academic probation to the dean’s list,” she said. And her passion for education hasn’t let up.

“I can’t stop going back to school now… I can’t stop,” she told the graduates, urging them to fight for what they want from their lives. “Don’t stop, don’t stop. You want to be a business owner, you be a business owner … you want to keep going to school, you keep going to school, but find something you love.”

About 50 graduates of the program were joined by rooting family and friends in the high school auditorium Thursday night. Around 130 people earned their high school equivalency diplomas in Schenectady this spring.

At least one of those graduates heard in Pleat’s story echoes of her own. As she crossed the stage to receive her degree, Monica Rivera leaned over to tell Pleat that she also wants to be a teacher.

Rivera, now 29 and living in Schenectady, dropped out of high school after getting pregnant in ninth grade. She has worked and raised her four kids in the years since she dropped out of school but always planned to go back when the time and place was right.

“I had to mature very fast and become a mom,” she said. “I haven’t had on a cap and gown since sixth grade.”

Rivera works two jobs, one at Burger King and another as a lunch monitor at Zoller Elementary School. In October, she started studying for the TASC exam – the test students must pass to earn the equivalency degree – and passed it on her first try.

Now that she has her high school equivalency, Rivera plans to advance up the education hierarchy to become a paraprofessional, working more closely with teachers and students. But she doesn’t plan to stop there. Rivera said she plans to continue working toward a college degree so she can step to the front of the classroom as a teacher.

“It’s my childhood dream,” she said. “I went to my pre-k teacher, I want to be that.”

Jonathan Nieves, 23 of Amsterdam, also dropped out of high school so that he could support a child at age 16. He works in construction and plans to pursue an associate degree in the field.

“It was difficult trying to raise a family and study and work, pay rent,” said Nieves, who didn’t pass the English portion of the test on his first try but did better on that subject than any other after studying and trying a second time. “I wanted it bad and just kept trying to get it.”

Nieves said he wanted to earn his equivalency diploma to show his young kids that they can have a better life than he has, just like he learned from watching his mom struggle through hard times. As he talked about his plans for the future, his 3-year-old son smiled and played by his side.

“I wanted him to see his dad graduate,” Nieves said.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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