PORTLAND — Slovanka Diep dropped out of school in her freshman year, unhappy with her teachers and courses at Deering High School.
When she resolved to return to school her sophomore year, Diep was told that DHS was full and her records had been purged from the system.
“That made me not even want to go back to school,” she said.
But Diep found a home, in more ways than one, at Portland High School and will walk down the isle along with approximately 225 classmates during the PHS graduation ceremony, Thursday, June 4, at Merrill Auditorium, starting at 10:30 a.m.
Diep, who missed a year of school, was able to graduate on time by joining the PHS Alternative Education program, a more flexible educational environment for students struggling to meet both academic and lifestyle needs. That’s not to say it was easy.
“I never thought I would graduate,” she said. “I doubled up on my classes. It was really hard, but I wanted to graduate, so I had to do it.”
The 18-year-old said she had been thinking about dropping out since middle school, where she attended classes but stopped doing homework. Diep said an unstable family situation kept her on the move and there was never really anyone asking her about school and whether she was doing her homework.
Then, Diep met Sophie Payson, a PHS social worker. Diep credits Payson, along with PHS teachers, with taking an interest in her studies and, more importantly, making an otherwise shy young girl comfortable in the classroom.
“They were all really supportive,” she said. “They actually cared.”
Payson last week received a 2009 Commissioners Recognition Award from the Department of Education. She said there are 40 students graduating through the alternative education program, which has upwards of 120 students enrolled. She contends the alternative education program is more rigorous than traditional high school.
“It’s a testament to how smart these kids are,” Payson said. “They will always rise to the high standard you set for them.”
Next year, Diep will study art at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland with the hope of transferring to the University of Southern Maine. She would like to use art as a sort of therapy for children who are not comfortable expressing their emotions.
“I used to have a hard time doing that,” Diep said of sharing her emotions. “I used to paint and draw a lot and it sort of helped me express myself.”
Before heading on to college, however, Diep is seeking to redefine the stigma that is often associated with “dropout.”
Diep is assisting PHS staff with a video that will be shown at a statewide dropout prevention forum this summer. Diep said she has been interviewing teachers and administrators from school districts throughout the state. Diep said many teachers solely blamed truancy on the students, describing them as “slackers” or people with “no vision.”
None seemed to recognize the school’s role in either silently pushing students away or bringing them back into the fold, she said. What the teachers also didn’t realize is that their interviewer was a former dropout.
“They don’t realize we’ve been dropouts before, but we’ve come back and we’re finishing,” she said.
Diep said that she never thought she would graduate from high school, so she doesn’t know how she will react when she walks across the stage to receive her diploma.
“I’ll probably cry and run off the stage,” she said.