NEWARK, NJ - Helen Watson has proudly witnessed her entire family - six children, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren - graduate from high school.
The diplomas, degrees, and graduation pictures have been a sense of pride for many years.
Now, the 60-year-old Newark woman hopes to make her family proud when she walks across the stage in June to finally receive her own high school diploma. And, she is dedicating herself to make sure other adults have the same opportunity she has had to finish her education.
Watson had her first child as a teenager. She and her partner separated. As a single mom, she was determined that her children would come first, so she left high school.
Not long after, she attempted to take courses at Essex County College. She struggled and did not feel supported, so she withdrew from classes.
“I tried to go to school several times here in Newark after sending my children to school. Each program that I was in folded,” Watson told the Newark Board of Education members at Tuesday’s board meeting.
Watson worked as a lunch aide for three years before becoming a school security officer for East Orange School District. She celebrated 25 years of being a district employee in April.
Motivated to complete her high school diploma, Watson enrolled in two adult learning classes that both closed. When she learned about the Newark Evening Educational Center (NEEC) from a friend, she took another chance at her dream of having a high school diploma and immediately enrolled for fall 2015.
NEEC is a high school for adults over 18 who have not yet earned a diploma. Students enrolled in one of Newark Public Schools comprehensive high schools are also eligible with the recommendation of a guidance counselor.
Classes are held at Newton Street Elementary School in the evenings from 4:30 until 8:30 p.m. with tutoring offered on Fridays.
Watson enjoyed her high school experience but had anxiety that the school would close because of what happened at other adult learning schools she attended. “You know what can happen based on what has happened before,” said Watson.
She and classmates had been attending board meetings since 2016 to express gratitude and gain assurance that their school will remain open. Watson attended the board meeting on Tuesday with Evon Clark, who is almost 70 and is also graduating this June, and other classmates.
“We don’t know if the class of 2020 is going to graduate. We don’t know if our school is still going to be open,” Watson said to the board. “I would like to know if the Newark Evening Education Center would still be open.”
Superintendent Roger León assured Watson and her classmates they had nothing to worry about. As principal of William H. Norton elementary school, León increased the GED program in English and Spanish, provided language classes, and classes for adults to learn computer skills for free. He vowed to bring these programs back.
“Not only is not going to happen, but we’re going to increase and improve what we’re doing right now,” said León.
He also announced he wants to open a high school for senior citizens.
“The purpose of that high school is to send a message to our younger students that it doesn’t matter now or if it's later. If you have that desire, this school system is going to make it happen for you,” said León.
Watson wiped away tears as people stood to applaud. She felt like she could finally breathe.
“This is bigger than me graduating. There are people behind me who want to do the same thing,” Watson told TAPinto Newark. “It breaks my heart to think that they might not make it.”
The school has almost 80% graduation rate for 2018 and 2019. Over 60 comprehensive day students have earned credits at NEEC so they could graduate with their peers and over 25 students found meaningful employment, Watson said.
Like most high school seniors, Watson is in the process of figuring out what’s next as she considers university. She would love to work with youth and young parents.
“In the beginning, I was too embarrassed to say I didn’t have a high school diploma and that I went back to school. I worked in a school for all these years and no one ever knew that I didn’t have a high school diploma,” said Watson. “To God be the glory, I will be getting it on the 17th and can’t nobody judge me but Jesus.”