Ailin Hernandez was 7 when she began dreaming of a future as a medical doctor. But the realities of getting pregnant at 15 made those dreams seem like a childhood fantasy.
“At school, many students would say ‘Oh, she has a baby.’ I would get a lot of stares because I would go to school pregnant,” said Hernandez, now 17. “My mom said don’t let people’s opinions about you stop you from accomplishing your goals. Once I had a daughter, I stopped thinking about school.”
In a few short months, one English teacher and a retired QuikTrip executive who volunteers at Phoenix Rising Alternative School have helped Hernandez start dreaming again — and more importantly, believing in herself.
The school is operated through a partnership between Tulsa County Family Juvenile Justice Center and Tulsa Public Schools. It’s an alternative school of choice, serving students with significant obstacles to overcome to obtain a high school diploma, including adjudication as a youthful offender, homelessness, having an incarcerated parent, and parenting and employment responsibilities for their livelihood.
Because the school offers the option of six-week semesters, with one class in the mornings and one class in the afternoons, Hernandez completed both credits she needed to graduate more than a full semester early.
But that’s not all Phoenix Rising has been celebrating.
Hernandez just received notice of her early admission to Rogers State University for the fall 2020 semester, which will make her the first member of her family to go to college.
She also applied to three other local colleges and universities, but chose RSU because of its nursing program.
“I want to work my way up to becoming a surgeon,” she said.
Ask Ailin (pronounced the same as Eileen) how she did it and you won’t find this soft-spoken, unassuming young woman beginning any sentences with the pronoun “I.”
She had begun questioning the need to continue in school, thinking she would just continue working jobs like the one she has at Braum’s to support her daughter over the long haul. But it was her case manager with Strong Tomorrows, a support program for expectant and parenting students in Tulsa high schools, including Hernandez’ former school, who told her about Phoenix Rising.
“At McLain, they gave me a schedule with eight classes when I only needed English and Algebra I. It didn’t make sense,” Hernandez said.
When she got into Phoenix Rising in late August, she found not one, but two cheerleaders who would have a quick but profound impact on her future outlook. The first is English teacher Krista Waldron, and the second is Sandy Thompson, who has been volunteering to help Waldron counsel graduating seniors about their college and career options.
“Krista was always pushing me — ‘You should look for colleges, you should look for scholarships. You’re really smart.’ She, like, encouraged me,” Hernandez said. “I think your parents will always be there for you. When someone else like that says those things, it makes you feel a different way. It motivated me.”
Just before retiring from QuikTrip in fall 2018, Thompson learned about the students at Phoenix Rising from a co-worker who volunteers there.
“I couldn’t sleep that night,” Thompson said. “Something about what she said about these kids, it spoke to my soul, and I think when you have conviction, you follow it. The very next week, I came up here and said, ‘I don’t know why I’m supposed to be here, but I’m here.’ ”
There, she met Waldron, who as the only English teacher serves every student at Phoenix Rising and is supposed to help every senior prepare a college and career portfolio with a resume, cover letter and thank-you letter.
“I wasn’t giving the seniors what they need — they have me all the time. Having someone from the business world, she has helped kids get jobs and if they can impress Sandy, I think it helps them believe in themselves,” Waldron said. “We joke we’re, like, the closers, Sandy and I.”
In helping them prepare resumes, Thompson helps the students see the marketable skills they’ve gained working even low-level jobs.
“Sandy would ask ‘what do you think of yourself?’ ‘Are you good at’ this or that? But I never thought about things like that. I never thought it would be important,” Hernandez said.
Phoenix Rising’s administrator, Lindsay Goldfarb, said Ailin’s accomplishments helped her remember why she and others choose to work with at-risk youth in alternative education.
“No matter what kind of barriers a young person has that they think halts their dreams — just because you have a child, or you’ve been through the foster care system, or you have a criminal charge — it doesn’t mean your life is ruined. You move forward,” Goldfarb said. “It’s about helping them see their potential. It just restored my faith in this work. So many kids forget to be proud of themselves.”