School Comeback

By Katerina Zachovalova

As 7-year-old Brandy Gonzales enters her classroom, her eyes fill with tears.  She is beginning her fourth year at Public School 15 on Sullivan Street in Brooklyn, but still, she has trouble separating from her mother.  She leans onto her mother, Gloria Guerra, 27, begging her not to leave.  But Guerra's thoughts about this back-to-school season differ from her daughter's. She is excited. She gets to go back to school too.

On Sept.17, Gloria Guerra, a single mother of two, will become one of the approximately 60 female students of a community based non-profit organization, Carroll Gardens Neighborhood Women, a free adult-education program funded by the city, state and private foundations.  Nine years after she failed out of high school, she will go back to the classroom to get her high school equivalency diploma.  "I am so excited.  I can't wait," Guerra said with a broad smile on her face after finally separating from Brandy. She said she loves to shop for her kid's school supplies, and now gets to do it for herself.

Last year, almost 73,000 people took the Test of General Education Development (GED) in New York City, and 55.3 percent were successful.

As high school diploma became a requirement for many entry-level jobs, single mothers like Guerra who live on public assistance checks find it the first step to get out of the welfare system.  According to Guerra, some of her neighbors who live in the Red Hook housing are trying to do the same.  Although, she said, the father of her children helps out to make the ends meet, she believes that GED is the way to go.  The diploma equivalency will help her to become self-supporting.

"It will give me options in the future," Guerra said, "Right now, I could get only a minimum wage job.  There are many jobs out there I cannot apply for because I do not have GED."  She would like to work at public school as teacher's aide one day, or just simply work with children.  "I would like to help kids," she added. She believes she would make a perfect candidate for such jobs; her three-year-old son Angel suffers from seizure disorder, and she has learned how to take care of a child with special needs.

Angel and Brandy will attend school this year, and only because of that Guerra can afford to go to school herself.  But her son's illness and her daughter's strong bond make Guerra's classroom comeback difficult.  "Brandy told me: Mom, I want you to be at school when I come out.  She is nervous about it. I am overwhelmed by guilt.  I do not want people think I am selfish.  When my son gets on a bus I worry.  I worry all the time," she said.  And then, there is the threat of winter colds.  Guerra said she might miss classes once her children catch a cold which usually develops in asthma.

             According to Christina Curran, the executive director of Carroll Gardens Neighborhood Women, students face two main obstacles in the process of getting their diplomas.  "A lot of them are single moms, and they have to balance their job, classes and kids.  They might need to make arrangements for childcare.  For others, it is the lack of confidence," she said.

            Guerra is a perfect example.  This is not the first time she tried to make up for her missing high school diploma.  Two years ago, she found a teacher who let her sit in Saturday history class.  She had her mother commute from Long Island to baby sit.  Everything seemed to work out.  But Guerra's fear that she is not prepared enough overruled her determination.  She was so scared she would fail and embarrass herself, that she did not take the history test.

"Are you ready for back to the loneliness, Betsy?" Guerra asked her friend and neighbor Betsy, who passed her GED past June, while they walked their daughters to the public school.  Closed inside the four walls of their subsidized apartments, moms like Guerra get lonely when the summer is over.  For Guerra, it is exciting to get out three days a week for her classes.  But it is not just that.  For her, the most exciting part is that she will get out of the neighborhood.  "I feel stuck here.  It is so hard to go anywhere with two children on a bus.  I was not raised in the projects.  This was the only solution to my situation.  I needed my own place. I needed to stay home with my son," she said with frustration in her voice.

Guerra said that Red Hook housing is not a good place to bring up children, and that she hardly takes them outside.  Carroll Park near her classes is where she brings her kids for play.  Carroll Gardens is the kind of neighborhood she would like to exchange for Red Hook immediately.  The drug scene in the housing makes her feel nervous, she said.  "Even the air is worse here.  It feels much cleaner on the Smith Street. I would leave in a heartbeat.  I just hope when my children get older I'm out of here."