Never Too Late: Back to School After 37 Years, With Help from Pearson

Carmelita Clark and Professor
Carmelita Clark with her English Composition Professor Stephen Chennault

Seated in the front row of her English composition class at Wayne County Community College in Detroit, Carmelita Clark is invited by her professor to say a few words to her classmates about her journey back to school after a gap of nearly four decades.

“If I have one thing to say to you, it’s: ‘Don’t be afraid to step out,’” says Ms. Clark, 55, dressed in a dark blue track suit with purple trim. “For 37 years I was afraid to step out. I love college, and what I have to say to you is to get your education because it’s never too late.”

The entire class of 40 students gave her a rousing ovation. Carmelita Clark beamed. Professor Stephen Chennault then launched into a lesson on the proper use of the apostrophe to show possession, and cited a famous line from a Carl Sandburg poem (“The fog comes on little cat feet”) to show how the metaphor can bring literature to life.

Ms. Clark’s voyage to Wayne County Community College – which she views as a launch pad to a career as a licensed social worker – involved dedicated teachers, plenty of determination and some help from a Pearson product called NovaNET, a Web-based online courseware system for high school and adult learners that provides personalized learning.

‘NovaNET makes it so easy’

“I don’t know if I would have made it without NovaNET,” says Ms. Clark, who returned to high school to get her diploma in 2009, after dropping out in 1972 when she became ill with diabetes and other ailments after having the first of her three children at age 18. “NovaNET makes it so easy, and it doesn’t let you proceed to the next section unless you get the one that you’re on.”

NovaNet

April Seworth, an English teacher at Ms. Clark’s high school in Detroit, says: “NovaNET really helped her on the basics. It strengthened her weak areas in English, and allowed her to go at her own pace because NovaNet targets the areas you’re weakest in.”

Just before graduating high school, attending both day and night classes in different school buildings, Ms. Clark won a $5,000 scholarship from Pearson in an essay-writing competition. Her winning entry outlined the obstacles posed by her lack of education – and her steely determination to overcome them.

She was once a team leader at a convalescent home, training new employees, but was replaced by someone with a college degree. “They said they no longer a needed a team leader, they needed a manager,” she says. “I had the skills but not the education.” Similarly, she worked her way up in a hospital cleaning job to train others but says she was passed over for a floor supervisor’s role by someone with a degree.

For Ms. Clark, the despair of those days has now been replaced by a huge smile and catchy optimism, something that’s in short supply in Detroit these days.

The recession and cutbacks in the auto industry have decimated the city’s economy, and the Detroit area’s jobless rate stands above 14%. On Ms. Clark’s street, not far from 8 Mile Road, made famous in the movie about rap-music star Eminem called “8 Mile,” a house next door to her modest beige single-story home sits vacant with boarded-up windows.

Showing off her high school diploma

“I show this to everyone,” she says, pointing to her high school diploma, granted June 12, 2009, by Detroit’s Board of Education, which sits perched in a glass display case in her living room. “This is my everything.”

Her high school graduation ceremony at Detroit’s Renaissance High School was memorable.

“They gave me two dozen red roses, and all my teachers from day and night school were on stage to congratulate me. Everyone was teary.”

Her son Damon, age 38, nods.

“She was supposed to graduate in 1972, the year I was born,” says Damon, now a deputy sheriff north of Detroit, where he deals with many young people who dropped out of school and then fall into crime. “When she told me she was going back to school, I was more excited for me than her.”

Adds Ms. Clark: “Damon thought he was the reason I dropped out of school, and I told him, ‘No, having you is not why I dropped out of school, it’s because I got ill.’”

When Damon found out that his mother was going on to college, “I said, ‘Wow, you’re not done yet.’” He bought her a car so she could attend classes at the community college, located a few miles from her home. The Ford Taurus is the first car she has owned in 12 years. Ms. Clark also has two daughters, Rachel, 34 and Carmen, 33.

‘Really excited and motivated’ at college

Carmelita Clark
Ms. Clark at her High School graduation party with teacher April Seworth

Ms. Clark is now enrolled in three classes in her second year at Wayne County Community College – English, psychology and speech. She hopes to transfer next year to nearby Wayne State University, and graduate in 2013 after a further two years.

“She’s just really excited and motivated,” says Pamela Broaden, campus vice president, student services, at the Northwest Campus of the community college. “We have lots of non-traditional students here. This is a setting where she can excel, so she can go on and attain the position she wants.”

Speaking to a visitor before his English composition class begins, Professor Chennault says: “My experience is that the older students perhaps realize what they should have done and didn’t, so they want to catch up now. Carmelita’s a very willing and capable student, quite mature, serious and determined.”

As he speaks, Ms. Clark strides into class and takes her usual perch in class. “You see,” says the professor. “She always sits in the front row.”