50-50 Series: Dropping Out of Robeson Not an Option for One Family

June 11, 2009

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Toni Erwin graduates from Robeson (WBEZ/Natalie Moore)

WBEZ has spent a lot of time at Robeson trying to explain why some students drop out of this Chicago neighborhood high school. But there are students who do finish in four years – despite obstacles. And there are ones who are simply motivated by school. Freshman Sarah Vance is motivated. Both of her sisters have graduated from Robeson. Julia Erwin is the mother of these young women. For her no obstacle is too big for her children to finish high school.

Series: 50/50: The Odds of Graduating
Live Blog Friday: Join series reporters Natalie Moore and Julia McEvoy for a live blog about the series

It's a busy afternoon at Sarah's apartment. Her sister Toni is getting dressed for her high school graduation later in the day. She's wearing four-inch heels and is having a bit of trouble walking in them.

ambi: factory

Mom Julia Erwin knows that a high school diploma isn't always the norm in her neighborhood. She works at a factory on the Southwest Side.

ERWIN: A lot of the kids that went to grammar school with them and started at Robeson dropped out. At least four guys around here around the same age of my kids, dropped out. Standing out on street corner selling drugs. I tried to get them a job down there where I'm at. If ya'll go get your ID, you're 18. They don't want to work.

Erwin graduated from Robeson in 1988.

Even when her oldest daughter got pregnant – twice – while at Robeson, Erwin made her finish because abortion and adoption were not an option.

ERWIN: You not finta drop out. You're going to school everyday. I watch your kids – you're going to school.

And her message to her three daughters and one son is a simple one:

ERWIN: I talk to my kids so they know right from wrong, you know what I'm saying? What ya'll want out of life? Don't ya'll want a job, be independent.

Erwin watches her daughter Toni twirl around in her shimmery gold Apple Bottom outfit. Dad Tony Vance stops by and takes out his camera to capture the moment.

VANCE: I'm feeling the way a dad should feel on graduation day. No babies. And hopefully that's trickling down. It has from my understanding – it is.

Vance glances at his daughter Sarah who has been getting report cards filled with As and Bs all year.

She doesn't like it when I ask her father if he's worried about her becoming a teen mom. Sarah's parents aren't worried – they see her focus. Sarah sees first hand how hard it is for her older sister with two toddlers.

But Sarah did have a boyfriend in the beginning of the year. I ask her if she still has one.

VANCE: I'll answer that – no. Not supposed to.
TONI: She can have one.
SARAH: I know.
VANCE: Here we go again with this again…
REPORTER: You still got a boyfriend, Sarah?
SARAH: That's personal.

But mother Julia knows one of Sarah's flaws – an attitude problem that occasionally surfaces – that will keep boys away.

JULIA: Sarah too mean for that. Too evil. I think she's gonna run them all away.

The family piles into a couple of cars and head for Robeson's graduation at a church in West Englewood.

ambi: house, fades into graduation

Graduation is packed. Savvy hustlers are selling flowers for families to give to their graduates. Aunties, uncles, nephews and cousins from both sides of Toni's family are there to see her walk the stage. They shout her nickname: Pookah.

ambi: graduation

Fashion-forward Toni has been accepted to the International Academy of Design and Technology for an associate's in fashion design.

But right now all focus is on today's accomplishment….

Principal Gerald Morrow takes the stage.

MORROW: Last year I made the statement that we would fill up this place and we did. This is the largest graduating class that we've had at Robeson High School in five to 10 years.

And Morrow has another message.

MORROW: And we have enough children walking around Englewood in which we have failed. When I say we – I mean every adult, uncle, auntie who has allowed these babies not to do what they supposed to do. And I'm the ringleader. I take my whooping first.

Toni joins 170 other graduates in their gold and red cap and gowns. These seniors received $1.4 million in scholarships.

After graduation, Toni gets her final report card – all As.

As the family heads out and the crowd disperses with smiles and congratulations, the Erwin and Vance family fully expect to be here again in three years…for Sarah's graduation.

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