Her classmates spread lies and called her names. And that's in part why Tierra Mann quit school in the eighth grade. Her fellow students feared that she could spread AIDS, because her uncle had been diagnosed with it.
After nearly a decade of struggling—earning minimum wage, she could barely afford diapers for her baby—she's ready to try again. Mann, 26, is studying to earn her GED at Durham Technical Community College.
It's a credential that has come under increased scrutiny by secondary school educators statewide who view a GED, which is legally equivalent to a high school diploma, as less than equal. High school officials in Durham said they prefer students obtain a high school diploma rather than a GED, contending employers favor it too, as do college admissions officials.
"A graduate with a high school diploma will be in a much more competitive place than a student who competes with a GED, which is a series of five tests," saids Deborah Pitman, assistant superintendent at Durham Public Schools.
Nonetheless, the number of high school dropouts seeking a GED is increasing. Many of these students—some of them in their 20s and 30s—contradict the prevailing attitude toward GEDs, saying not only is it a worthy high school credential, but also is a vital second chance to get their lives back on track.
In 2006, the number of students who earned their GED or adult high school diploma (which differs from a GED in that it requires students to earn course credits) in community college increased more than 14 percent since 2002, compared to a 24 percent increase in high school dropouts in that time, data shows.
More than 15,000 high school credentials were awarded in North Carolina community colleges in 2006-07, compared to 23,550 students in the state who dropped out of traditional high school that same year.
Younger students may find it difficult to enroll in the programs: Durham Tech officials are debating whether to allow 16- and 17-year-old students to enroll in GED classes; Wake Tech accepts these students after a six-month waiting period. But for older students, local community colleges are working harder to tout the benefits of a GED and adult high school.
As for the students enrolled in these programs, they describe a renewed sense of urgency to succeed and reveal what some educators already know: Some students quit because life beyond the walls of a traditional high school spins out of control.
On a Tuesday morning at the end of August, students cluster in the halls of Durham Tech. Beatrice Muhammad, the school's adult high school/ GED program director, thunders down the halls ordering students to find their classrooms. Muhammad opens a door and peeks her head outside, her voice booming, "All right, time to go to class."
Once the halls are empty, she slips into a conference room, breathless.
"They stand and socialize," she explains. "You have to get them going."
Staff and administrators at Durham's Basic Skills Center are making a concerted effort to keep students in the classroom. "If you love your job, you might bring students breakfast one morning," explains Naomi Feaste, a GED instructor. "If you need a book or a bus pass, you may go in your pocket and pay for that. We think about our students, because we know they are human beings. They are trying to grow into their potential, so they can be contributing members to society."
And that means telling students that much is expected of them—a message they may not have heard before, Feaste says.
Keshia Gray earned her GED in 2006, after dropping out of a Durham high school in 1992. She recalls that very message echoing in her ear at 8 o'clock one morning from Phil Gowins, a GED and adult high school instructor. "Don't think you are going to miss class," she mimics in a deep, stern voice. "You have 30 minutes."
Gray is now studying for her associate's degree and wants to become a registered nurse
One of the strategies Durham Tech has used to help adult high school and GED students is to hire six "strong men"—as Muhammad calls them—to mentor students with troubled pasts and who often didn't have male role models.
Women students in search of good same-sex role models have brought their children into classrooms to talk to one of the male instructors, Muhammad says. And men have benefited from it as well, she says.
"Momma let them be the little daddies from the house," Muhammad says. "Now they have a man talking to them like a man. They are not used to it. Lots of respect came with that."
Shondell Moore, 34, dropped out of 10th grade in New Jersey after spending years in the foster care system. He's been trying since 2006 to obtain his GED at Durham Tech, a certificate he says carries more relevance for him than what he learned in high school.
He pays for the books, which motivates him to actually read them.
"High school—all you gotta do is just beat it," Moore says.
But it's been hard. He just started another round of classes while holding down a job that keeps him in the inventory room at Wal-Mart until midnight, leaving him little time to sleep before he has to wake up for an 8 a.m. class.
He admits he needs to let either school or work go: "It's real tiring."
His revelation is too much for Nell Yates, a spokeswoman at Durham Tech, who has sat in on interviews with students and the Indy, but usually has been quiet.
"Don't you quit. They won't let you quit. Phil will be after you," she says, referring to Gowins, the instructor who helps students transition to college.
After a moment, Moore laughs and agrees, adding that letters from Durham Tech would stream into his mailbox with reminders to attend. And he does want to get an education, and then a job he likes, perhaps in electrical engineering.
"I'm here. I'm on the right track. I'm trying to do as much as I can," he says.
Some students acknowledge their choice to drop out of high school had nothing to do with lack of effort on the part of the school system; rather it was because of other factors in their life.
One woman fled an abusive home in rural North Carolina, only mere credits from graduating, before enrolling shortly after she dropped out into an adult high school program at Durham Tech.
Another young woman, legally blind, dropped out in the early '90s to help her sister, who was struggling with drug problems, raise her children. She has also since returned and wants to attend N.C. Central University in the spring.
Janee Marshall, 34, dropped out of Northern High School in Durham after struggling with the pressures of being a teen mother. She had a baby in the seventh grade. The school system did "everything they could to keep me there," she says. But it wasn't enough. She eventually went back to school, earning her GED from Durham Tech in 2006, prompted by the frustration of watching new people advance in her industry: nursing, while she lagged behind.
In the long term, she plans to attend N.C. State University, and take classes that will steer her toward the biotechnology industry.
For many students, the best motivator for earning an adult high school diploma or GED is the knowledge that most traditional high school students don't have: It's incredibly hard to support yourself with the type of job that employs people without a high school credential.
That's part of what has kept Mann, the woman who fled school amid jeers from students over her uncle's AIDS illness, motivated.
And despite a few false starts—times she enrolled in classes to help her get her GED that she subsequently left—she has high hopes for this semester.
"I don't see any reason why I couldn't succeed this time," she says.