Overcoming All Odds

Cassandra is not your typical 19-year-old. A senior in high school living completely on her own and supporting herself, she has an impeccable will, an indomitable spirit, and an outlook far beyond her years.

“You can hear the determination in her voice – she’s sincere,” Cassandra’s Communities In School (CIS) site coordinator Mrs. Sellers said.

Cassandra’s step-father, who is the only father she knows, was imprisoned when she was 10 years old and as a result, her mother, who suffers from mental illness, lapsed into depression and became abusive. Cassandra served the role as caretaker for her mother and siblings during her step father’s six-year sentence, and when he returned, the abuse only worsened.

“Academically, my life was great for me. I was in a gifted program at school. But because of things going on at home, I couldn’t concentrate. It affected me emotionally,” Cassandra said, “I enrolled in Job Corps just to get out of a bad situation.”

After a year in Job Corps, Cassandra moved to Philadelphia and worked to support herself, without returning to high school. One day, a friend asked her about her plans for the future and Cassandra realized that all of the dreams she had for herself required a college education. “I realized I had none of those tools,” she said. “I always saw myself going from high school to college.” Cassandra found her local Communities In Schools and was tentatively accepted until the school received her education history information. She went to school every day even though she didn’t know if she’d be fully accepted into the program.

“I’m really just attracted to the fact that Cassandra has a determined spirit,” Mrs. Sellers said. “She kept coming back, even though she hadn’t yet been accepted. Not everyone has that determination. I could see this was something she needed.”

Still balancing working to support herself and living on her own, Cassandra excelled in school. “I had no family; I had no one to cheer me on. Other kids – they have their parent come in and wake them up in the morning, make sure they’re getting ready for school,” she said. “I didn’t have that. When I was tired in the morning I needed the motivation to get out of bed and get myself to school.”

“It made it easy to fight for her,” Mrs. Sellers said. “It is my personal goal to make these students successful. Some of them have very adult decisions to make.”

Cassandra embodies the type of student Communities In Schools of Philadelphia helps. At just 19, she is older than her peers, but has the responsibilities of someone far older. Managing those responsibilities and navigating her own path hasn’t always been easy, but she is grateful for the guidance she has received from Communities In Schools.

“I’m young. I don’t know everything. Being at this school is like having a surrogate parent. They can tell me the resources I need and give me the support that no one else can give me,” she said. Mrs. Sellers agreed. “It’s better for the community, it’s better for me, and it’s better for the young people to have people root for them rather than pointing out their mistakes.”

Thanks to Communities In Schools of Philadelphia, Cassandra has graduated from the Performance Learning Center in an accelerated period of time and earned her degree in April 2012.

“Without CIS of Philadelphia, I’d be struggling right now. It’s hard to say what it is. They want me here. Everyone says ‘hi’ to me in the morning and seems genuinely happy to see me. It’s the best feeling to know there’s somebody out there who’s proud of you,” she said. “That feels good.” While Cassandra is undecided about a major, she definitely knows that college is in her future.