By Gary Walker
High school graduation is an almost universal milestone, but some people take a little longer or have to fight a lot harder to get there. For many of those who graduated this summer from Emerson Adult School in Westchester, it’s the payoff for years of perseverance and perhaps the ticket to a better future.
Enrolling at Emerson allowed Antonio Ramirez to not only settle his own unfinished business, but also inspire his adult daughter to do the same. Ramirez dropped out of high school to take a job 25 years ago, but decided back in 2015 to give it another go in hopes of attaining better-paying work. When his daughter Suryah Oliver returned to Los Angeles from Arizona last year, he convinced her to take classes as well.
Oliver took to school with such enthusiasm that she finished essential coursework in about two weeks. Overall, Oliver’s run to a diploma was among the fastest ever by an Emerson student, said teacher/advisor Monica Medina.
“I was really excited to be going to Emerson because they were able to help me finish so much quicker than I would have in Arizona,” Oliver said.
Her father, on the other hand, had been out of school so long that he had a little trouble orienting himself when he arrived.
“But I got a lot of help from my teachers and counselors,” Ramirez said, “so it was all good.”
Emerson’s graduation ceremony in late May looked a lot like others — families snapping photos, graduates hugging classmates and teachers, and even caps tossed into the air.
One of the more enthusiastic members of the class of 2018 was Dylan Benefield. It took him seven years to graduate, but for the 26-year-old it was all worth it.
“It’s the greatest achievement in my life so far,” he said proudly.
Benefield admitted that he didn’t take his education very seriously before he came to Emerson, and consequently spent a lot of time stuck in low-wage jobs that further slowed his academic progress. He credits a constant well of support from his mother and the dedication of all of his teachers — but especially Patrick Meyer, whom he looked to as a mentor.
“Mr. Meyer helped me focus, and luckily I was able to live with mom while I was going to school. Her belief in me was huge,” said Benefield, who has enrolled in Santa Monica College and plans to study broadcast journalism.
Medina said many Emerson students arrive somewhat resentful of having to be back in a classroom, but those who keep their eyes on the prize can turn things around quickly.
“Many of the adults who come back to adult school come to us a little angry with a chip on their shoulder. They’ve had a bad experience in high school and that makes it difficult for them,” Medina said.
But these students might have dropped out again or taken even longer to finish their degrees if not for some last-minute public demonstrations and intense lobbying by students, faculty and administrators in late 2015. That’s when the LAUSD board appeared dead-set on closing Emerson to make room for charter school classrooms, until former Westside board member Steve Zimmer persuaded his colleagues to keep the school alive.
Former Emerson Adult School Principal Shari Siegler watched the students celebrate their diplomas with tears in her eyes, realizing how near to closure the school had come just two years ago.
“There are lots of hills and valleys along the way, but graduation is the culmination of this one journey and the bridge that leads to the next. The hills we climb to get our students to graduation day are both individual student obstacles and bureaucratic struggles with LAUSD to believe in and fully fund adult education,” said Siegler, who retired last year.
But for graduates, the journey continues. Ramirez, for example, plans to enroll at West L.A. College, and Oliver hopes to attend beauty school.
Sami Jumann, a graduate who hopes to become a pharmacy technician or a nurse, said his three years at Emerson had been “a very interesting tough ride” but he is thankful for the opportunity. From Saudi Arabia but of Ethiopian descent, the 30-year-old would not have been able to pursue an education in his native country.
“Once [the Saudi government] realizes that you are a foreigner, most programs don’t apply to you. Here I had the support of the staff and the teachers who kept pushing me to graduation day,” Jumann said.
“Without Emerson, I wouldn’t be here,” he concluded. “Everyone needs that second chance.”