Former dropouts say, 'I can,' and do
By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Archie Bowen Jr. spent months trying to talk his stepdaughter into going back to school. One night while they were eating dinner, he made a deal with her that changed both of their lives.
He told her that if she finished high school, he would too.
Two weeks later, Bowen, 31, and Julie Leon, 19, were taking classes together at the Clearwater Adult Education Center. Bowen went three nights a week. Leon, who had only been away from school for a year, went once or twice a week.
They finished their course work in three months and took the General Education Development test last spring. On Thursday night, they marched into the Times Arena at Bayfront Center and sat in the section reserved for honors graduates. In the audience were Bowen's wife, Patti, and her older daughter, Jodi, who earned her diploma 10 years ago through the GED program.
Bowen will pursue a contractor's license. Leon will study accounting at Florida Metropolitan University in Clearwater.
The father and stepdaughter, who live in Clearwater, were among 203 high school graduates who received diplomas at the district's annual countywide graduation ceremony. They represented nearly 2,400 students from 17 to 63 who completed high school graduation requirements this year through the department of adult, community and workforce development.
Most of the graduates were adults who passed a GED test and received a state of Florida high school diploma, said GED test center assistant Cecelia Eddy. Twenty-three were high school students who completed summer school. Five took high school classes to get their regular high school diplomas.
Traditionally, only about 10 percent of the graduates attend the ceremony, Eddy said. Some of the younger students go to please their parents. Some of the older ones want to set examples for their children.
William Martin, 34, of St. Petersburg, said he hopes his sons, 7 and 11, won't do what he did.
"I quit school in 10th grade thinking that I could make a decent living without an education," Martin said. "I found out that I couldn't. Everybody told me, but I didn't want to listen."
After cutting grass, pumping concrete and waiting tables for 18 years, Martin wants to show his kids that "education is No. 1." He plans to attend St. Petersburg College to become a medical technician.
Angela Ciccimarro, who lives in Tarpon Springs, walked in the ceremony to send a message to her grandchildren.
"I was young and foolish at 16 and I quit school," she said. "I made the wrong choice. I've regretted it every since."
Ciccimarro, 63, works in the cafeteria at Tarpon Springs High School. She decided to go back to school three years ago when she found out she needed a high school diploma to be a teacher's assistant.
Martin and Ciccimarro said they appreciate their diplomas more because they waited a long time for them. Agnieszka Zajac appreciates hers because it took so much effort.
Zajac and her family came to Clearwater from Poland in February 2001. The 18-year-old attended English for Speakers of Other Languages classes at Clearwater Adult Education Center. Her teachers encouraged her to take the science, math and social studies classes she needed to complete her senior year of high school.
After she passed the GED test, Zajac returned to the center to tutor other students. She wants to be a doctor or a nurse and plans to begin St. Petersburg College in January.
Adult education teachers are quick to say that taking the GED test is not an easy way out.
"The test basically was designed to cover everything a student is supposed to know when they leave high school," said GED instructor Carol Parker. She suspects that if the test were administered to a class of graduating high school seniors, only about half would pass it.
It gets harder with each revision, she said. A new GED test, updated to align with current high school trends, was used for the first time in Pinellas County in February. It had more charts and graphs and required a higher level of thinking skills than the previous test, which was compiled in 1988.
In spite of the challenges, the candidates keep coming. Oliver Tom Bernsdorff, a resource teacher for education technology, hopes the countywide graduation ceremony will be available to all who make the effort.
"It's validation. It's recognition," Bernsdorff said. "Some of them have literally worked years for this."
Bernsdorff, who earned a state of Florida high school diploma through the GED program in 1989, is working on a doctorate at the University of South Florida. He said he feels a kinship with the graduates.
"I love this day," Bernsdorff said. "This is my best work day of the year. It's their day, but I love sitting in the shadows and watching them glow."
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