Rasheedah Phillips, 27, remembers the stares she received the first time she walked through the halls of her Philadelphia high school. She was 14 years old, and showing the early signs of pregnancy.
“The stigma from that point on was there,” she said. “I became depressed. I stopped going to school. I didn’t want to be there.”
Phillips was on the path to becoming part of a grim statistic. More than 7,000 students drop out of school every day in America. According to the March of Dimes, only 40 percent of teenagers who have children before the age of 18 graduate from high school.
But, thanks to her own determination and the intervention of a community group, Rasheedah Phillips stayed in school, and is now a lawyer, a home owner, and an active parent to her daughter Iyonna, who will be entering high school herself soon.
More stories like her’s could be a boon for a struggling economy, according to The Alliance for Excellent Education. A new study by the organization looks at what the economic impacts of $5 billion in spending to cut the dropout rate in half would be. The results, according to the study, would be over $9 billion added to GDP, $2 billion in new investments and over 54,000 new jobs.
“The single greatest economic stimulus package in this country, in the information age economy, is a diploma,” said Bob Wise, the former governor of West Virginia and the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.
Phillips’ story illustrates what a difference finishing high school can make.
She said that early in her pregnancy, she started to ask herself why she was bothering to stay in school. She came from a long line of teen mothers, and had always told herself she would be different. She did not want to have to work multiple low-wage jobs to support her children the way her mother had. But she no longer saw higher education and a career as a possibility.
“I felt like I had destroyed my future because of the negative stereotypes that are associated to teen moms,” she said. “Well, I am no different. I am going to be the same as other teen moms that I see, who are welfare, who have dropped out of school, who have to work a bunch of jobs, who will never make it to college. I knew, in my mind at the time, that was where I was headed.”
Fortunately, an organization called Communities in Schools reached out to Phillips and offered her the support she needed — like health screenings and counseling — to stay in school while dealing with her pregnancy.
Her struggles continued after Iyonna’s birth. She was still depressed and missed school often. “I actually attempted suicide a couple of times and ended up in the hospital,” she said. When her mother came to visit her in the hospital, she said she realized the need to act fast to avoid becoming a statistic — for her daughter’s sake. “I looked at her and said ‘I’m doing this for her. She deserves a life, a future, stability.’”
With continued support from Communities in Schools and her re-ignited drive to succeed, Phillips graduated high school.
“As an organization our role is to say, ‘You can do this, you can be whatever you want to be. This is just a little harder right now,’” said Martin Nock, the President and CEO of Communities in Schools Philadelphia. “Rasheedah had what it takes to move forward and try to become the best student that she could be.
Not only did she graduate high school in time, but she also finished college a year early and went to law school. She recently bought a house in Philadelphia. Now, while working as a lawyer, she takes time to volunteer with pregnant teens and give speeches. All while raising her daughter Iyonna, who will be 14 soon herself.
“I went to law school so I would not have to work three jobs, so I could be home with her at night,” she said. “Looking at her and seeing her everyday, inspires and motivates me to get up and go work and do what I need to do.”