Pcs Grads Beat Odds, Bring Home Diplomas


Maybe they didn't fit the mold.

Maybe they didn't click with the popular groups in high school.

Maybe they'd gotten in trouble.

They all had reasons to give up, but they didn't.

The odds were against the seven students who received their high school diplomas Thursday at Payson Center for Success, but with the help of their teachers, they succeeded where they might otherwise have failed.

One student, Daniel Dozier, was working and couldn't attend the small graduation ceremony at Payson's alternative high school. One of the other graduates promised to take him his diploma.

The other six talked about the obstacles they'd overcome to finish school juggling jobs with their school work, living on their own, having children, persevering even though their families put little emphasis on education.

"We are not a product of our environment," said 18-year-old Eric Hilgendorf, who spent nearly a year in a juvenile detention center before enrolling at PCS.

This week, he became the first person in his immediate family to earn a high school diploma.

"We could have easily given up," said Nichole Cummings, a 19-year-old graduate who has been a student at PCS since it opened in 1996. "If it wasn't for the staff, I don't think any of us would have graduated. We did the work, but they're the ones who pushed us to do it.

"I came here as a sophomore," she said. "It was too easy to get into trouble at the high school. I was skipping classes and knew I wouldn't graduate at that rate."

On the fast track

Eric went to jail on drug charges in his sophomore year at Payson High School. "At Adobe Mountain -- they called it a school, but I didn't earn any credits while I was there," he said.

After a nine-month stint behind bars, which, he said, felt more like four years, he was released and wanted to make up his credits in a hurry. Catching up at Payson High would have taken too long, he said. At PCS, he could catch up quickly and work too, he said.

Nineteen-year-old Jennifer Isit has only been a charter school student for two months. She transferred from Payson High School to a Valley school during her senior year, but didn't like it.

"I started taking correspondence courses," she said. But she didn't like those either. When she moved back to Payson, she only had one credit left to complete her requirements for graduation and she chose to earn her diploma at PCS.

Back on track

Twenty-year-old Cheri Beecroft, like Nichole, has been with PCS since the beginning.

Cheri said she was in with the "wrong crowd" at the high school. She never went to class and didn't like the teachers. She dropped out of school for a year and tried to get different jobs. She ended up cleaning motel rooms for a living and found it wasn't much fun.

"And then I got pregnant," she said, "and had a kid, and I decided I really had to get somewhere because I had a kid and I had to make a life for her. It's kind of hard to pay the bills with a motel paycheck."

Tifany Stapleton, 17, also has a baby, a 4-month-old girl.

"I came here because I was pregnant," she said, "and my high school had too much of a social life."

The graduates all agreed that the teachers challenged them and encouraged them and were key to their success.

Leaving tracks

And now, the students will strike out on their own.

Nichole said she will work for a while.

"I'm waiting to hear on my Pell grant at Yavapai (College in Prescott)," she said, "and I want to study equine science."

Eric isn't sure what he's going to do.

"But I've always dreamed of working for the Forest Service," he said. "I'd like to work in Yellowstone or Yosemite. I appreciate God's creations -- maybe more so than most people."

Jennifer said she plans to move to Tucson in March to take classes at Pima Community College.

"I'm going to take the prerequisites to transfer to the University of Arizona," she said. "Basically, I just want to get out of Payson and be on my own."

"Basically, we all want to get out of here," said Nichole. "Most of us have been here all our lives."

Payson has few job opportunities and offers little training, Tiffany said.

While taking classes at PCS, Nicki spent a day shadowing a veterinarian. "I really enjoyed that," she said. "I'd like to work with animals."

Cheri said she plans work as a stay-at-home mother until her daughter is in school, and then she'd like to go back to school to be a kindergarten teacher.

"The only reason I got to go back to school this year," she said, "is my mom and grandma were my baby-sitters."

But Tifany is following a schedule and has a more immediate plan.

"I have dates for everything," she said. "On Jan. 4, I'm going to go and interview with Education America in Mesa. Then I'll major in criminal justice and computers. On Jan. 24, I plan to go to school. That's when they open.

"It'll take a year and three months."

After she graduates from Education America, Tifany said she hopes to land a job in law enforcement or computers, gain experience, and go back to college to major in preschool education.

"I just want to give my daughter the best life possible," she said.

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