Rock Hill agency gives dropouts a second chance

Antoinette "Pooh" Jennings, 18, thought her life was over when she discovered she was pregnant in April.

"I was scared because I was still in school," said Jennings, a former South Pointe High School student.

The Rock Hill teen wanted to continue her education.

"All my friends had babies and didn't finish school," she said. "I didn't want to set that example for my child and my younger cousins."

So Jennings turned to Palmetto Youth Connections, a nonprofit Rock Hill agency that helps participants ages 17 to 21 obtain their GEDs or high school diplomas and learn job skills.

"It opens doors for those (for) whom doors were closed," case manager Dwain Gibbs said of the program. "It gives them a second chance."

The program recently celebrated its second anniversary. The first 12 weeks is devoted to classroom time as students work to earn their GEDs or high school diplomas. The remainder of the time is geared toward skills such as resume-building and work readiness skills. Students also learn how to repair computers, and some, such as Jennings, take up a certified nursing assistant program at York Technical College in Rock Hill.

"It's a way of giving them additional skills," said Dennis Wells, interim program manager and instructor. "It tends to better position them to participate in the job market. It gives students skills to help them be independent."

Participation is open to students who have withdrawn from their high schools in York, Chester and Lancaster counties. The program started in Rock Hill in 2006. Since then, 144 students have participated. Of those, 19 have earned their GED, and 12 have received supplemental job skills from York Tech.

'I accomplished a lot'

Jennings started in May at PYC, taking the three-hour class daily Monday to Thursday. She earned her GED in September. She also earned customer service and certified nursing assistant certificates.

"I accomplished a lot," she said with a huge grin. "Now, I know I can get a good job."

Taking care of family also was a priority for Daniela Romero, 18, a medical office assistant who earned her GED through the program in October. But the steps she took to get there were riddled with obstacles.

In August 2006, the York woman was set to start her sophomore year at York Comprehensive High School, but pregnancy changed her plans.

"Nobody would have ever thought that I would have gotten pregnant and dropped out of school," she said. "I decided that I wasn't going to go back to high school then."

After giving birth, Romero tried to obtain her high school diploma online but found the task too grueling.

"It was just like full-time high school," she said. "You had to read books and do reports. It was harder than high school because I didn't have anyone to turn to if I had questions."

So she quit the program and focused on her son.

"It was more important for me to be home with him instead of having someone else baby-sit him and pretty much raise him for the first year of his life while I was at school," she said. "I wanted him to know that I was Mommy."

But the former honor roll student and honor society member never forgot about finishing school, she said. In June, she learned about Palmetto Youth Connections and decided to give it a try.

"It's been rough. I regret that I dropped out of school, but I wouldn't trade Jaden for anything."

She wrapped up preparing for her GED test in August and started taking a three-week certified nursing assistant class at York Tech. She earned a certificate in that class as well as a customer service certificate in October.

"Not long after that, I got my (GED) results back and started my new job," she said. "Because I went there, that gave me a chance to better my life so I could therefore better his."

Now, she has plans to go into a nursing program, and she encourages pregnant teens to figure out what's best for them and their babies.

"If high school doesn't work, they can go somewhere that will give them hope," she said.

As for Jennings, she also has no regrets.

"It's not the end of the world," she said. "You can accomplish a lot of things if you put your mind to it and not let anyone put you down. There are people who are willing to help."