Las Vegas Sun

January 16, 2018

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J. Patrick Coolican:

Teenage parents, trying to graduate, face enormous challenges


Leila Navidi

Icalynn Gamble, 18, gives her 15-month-old daughter Alesiana Robinson a kiss at home in Las Vegas on Monday, March 19, 2012.

Icalynn Gamble

Icalynn Gamble tears up after being surprised early on Saturday morning at her mother's apartment by Chaparral High School officials in Las Vegas on September 10, 2011. Gamble dropped out her junior year at Chaparral after having a baby, and school officials were there trying to get her to come back to school. Gamble came back the following Monday. Launch slideshow »

What is a turnaround school?

The Clark County School District implemented the "turnaround" model at five of its worst-performing schools for the 2011-2012 school year. Four of these schools — Chaparral, Mojave and Western high schools, and Hancock Elementary School — received a piece of a three-year, $8.7 million federal School Improvement Grant to improve test scores and for the high schools, graduation rates. As part of the turnaround model, the principal and at least half of the staff were replaced at each school, and schools were required to implement new programs and teaching methods to improve student achievement.

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

Icalynn Gamble had quit going to school last fall, overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being an 18-year-old mother and dejected about her chances of graduating. That’s when a parade of dignitaries — including Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones, state Sen. Steven Horsford and new Chaparral High School Principal Dave Wilson — knocked on her door on a Saturday morning and persuaded her to return. With tears flowing, she agreed.

“I stopped going (to school) because I was like, ‘What’s the point?’ Then Mr. Wilson got there and everything changed,” she says.

Now, about eight months later, Gamble is scratching and clawing for her diploma. She still has two proficiency exams to complete, math and science, and she fears she’ll never pass.

“I’m getting so frustrated with math,” she says. Her boyfriend, Daquan Robinson, who is also the father of their child, Alesiana Robinson, also needs to pass math. They live with Robinson’s grandmother, Jenise Maye, in an apartment just east of Boulder Highway. Maye tries to steer them on a good path.

“I try to tell them it’s human to err. Just shake it off. As long as they’re doing something positive,” Maye says.

Maye has loaded up her home with children’s books.

“Oh yeah,” says Robinson, “she’s going to read. She’s going to Harvard.”

Baby Alesiana, who will be 2 years old in December, also loves music. That’s not surprising, as Robinson and Gamble first bonded over a love of music, especially hardcore bands. Daquan is a vocalist in a band.

He also loves film and would like to pursue cinematography after high school, or study to become a computer technician. Gamble’s goals are also a bit hazy — she dreams of photography or massage therapy.

They are good kids, kind of nerdy, and loving parents.

Their continuing struggles illustrate the School District’s challenge to increase an abysmal graduation rate in the face of years of academic neglect as well as social problems such as poverty, uninvolved parents and teen pregnancy. Although the teenage pregnancy rate dropped 44 percent nationwide from 1991 to 2010, teen pregnancy still creates difficult academic barriers for young mothers and, in turn, their children.

For a time early in high school, Gamble was homeless, living at Shade Tree, the shelter for women and their children, and sometimes sleeping at friends’ places or in a car. Her pregnancy also set her back academically.

Robinson, meanwhile, struggled at Chaparral High School, which he said was plagued by drugs, alcohol and violence, an environment that his grandmother says made him depressed and anxious.

He says the district’s aggressive restructuring — designating Chaparral a “turnaround school,” appointing a new principal and replacing more than half the teachers — has improved the learning environment there.

Both Gamble and Robinson have tried to find work, but with school and the baby, they have limited time and changing schedules. Moreover, there aren’t many jobs. The Nevada teenage unemployment rate is more than 30 percent, among the worst in the nation.

Gamble and Robinson have a lot working against them. A sluggish economy means fewer jobs. Without college degrees, they could end up in low-paying work that offers little security and no benefits. College costs are soaring. Government deficits will likely lead to cuts in important programs such as food stamps.

The breakdown of familial, social and religious bonds can leave our most vulnerable citizens, people like Gamble and Robinson, terribly alone and without the important connections that can lead to a job, needed charity in difficult times or just steady guidance.

They both seem eager to learn and to lead successful, fulfilling and responsible lives, but they currently lack the elusive tools that will get them there.

In a classic rite of passage, Gamble recently rustled up a little extra money from her grandmother so she could go to the prom. She took the bus to Ross to look for a dress and was thrilled to find an elegant white evening gown with sequins for $24.99. A friend did her hair and nails, and she posted on Facebook: “i can honestly say tonight was one of the best nights of my life.”

If you look closely at the photos, you can see that she and Robinson are expecting their second child.

About this unexpected development, Gamble says she feels blessed.