The words “Once an Indian, always an Indian” have never been more true than for a group of former students who, years after leaving campus, received their diplomas, thanks to an initiative by Jacksonville High School.

“My mom was crying – I think she was in the school office (where she works) – and I was ugly crying over the phone,” said Scarlett Henderson Armstrong of the moment she learned she had passed a state-mandated math test and would be receiving her original diploma. “A lot of the people at school who've known me were hugging me, saying they were so proud of me. And when I put it on Facebook, I had so many comments, about how I continued, that I didn't give up.”

According to the Texas Education Agency website, a student “follows the high school graduation plan that was in place when they began ninth grade, and the four graduation plans currently in use require students to earn 22 to 26 course credits.”

Beginning in the fall of 1986, the state also began requiring students to pass state standardized tests – in the subjects of Algebra I, English I, English II, Biology and U.S. History – in order to receive their diploma.

“Any Texas student who does not graduate because of state testing scores has always had the opportunity to return and test in an effort to complete their high school education,” said Jill Dublin, Campus Testing Coordinator/AP Testing Coordinator at Jacksonville High School.

“Since I started at JHS in December 2015, I have gotten one or two calls a year from people who want to come back to test. In August of 2018, we awarded a diploma to a student from the Class of 2011, and she gave us permission to post her picture on Facebook – that is what I credit with our sudden increase in interest, and our need to start a system for tracking and contacting former students,” she said.

A year ago, in September 2018, TEA “added an alternate graduation pathway for students who enrolled in the ninth grade prior to 2011 and who attempt the current test at least once,” Dublin said. “When I share that as long as they will try one more time, we can go to a committee to award their diploma, they become even more committed and excited. So far, every adult tester who has attempted the test since that change has passed it the first time, so we haven't yet needed to use the alternate committee.”

For Armstrong, who now resides in Huntington, the journey began right after walking the stage with her Class of 2007 classmates, receiving a certificate of completion instead of a diploma, because she did not pass state TAKS tests for math and science.

“No one knew I didn't have my diploma, only close family and close friends,” and when talk of future plans would arise, she told people she was “taking time off.”

But she was determined to get that diploma.

“I passed the science one that summer, but I never passed the math test – I would get so close, but never pass,” she said, adding that it was “very discouraging.”

In 2009, she got married and she and her husband started a family that now includes two sons and a daughter. Armstrong said she considered testing for the GED, but was told she couldn't take the classes because she tested out of them.

“When I was finally like 'I have to get this done,' I talked to Jill, who said that since I'd taken TAKS so many times, I would have to try the STAAR.' And I was like, 'Oh, joy …' because I'd heard that the STAAR was worse,” she laughed. “ I finally took it, though it was horrible when results came back, because I read it wrong, Jill read it wrong … it was just awful.”

She had an option to do a project instead (“You had to make your own math problems, explain it in your words … math is my worst subject,” she laughed), “but for some reason, I pull the information up again, looked at it more closely, and thought, 'Wait a second, I passed.' So I called my sister, who worked at Joe Wright (Elementary), and my mom, who called a few days later, saying, 'I've got some good news: You passed!' ”

Posting Armstrong's success story – and those of other former students who've chosen to take the state test one more time in pursuit of their diploma – on the high school's Facebook page has drawn interest from others in the same situation.

“Following that post in August, I received an average of three calls per day for about two weeks – I would estimate that about 30 people have contacted me since then,” Dublin said. “Not everyone who calls is eligible to graduate through testing: Only someone who completed all other requirements for credits and attendance can graduate by coming back to test.”

Dublin said that students are generally between ages 27 and 32, and have different reasons for waiting to take the test.

“Many who call are not aware that this option exists. Others have tried unsuccessfully for a few years following graduation, and then either became too discouraged to continue or got busy with other things. Hearing about others who graduate seems to be the number one reason for the renewed interest,” she said. “Their response about the opportunity to receive their diploma is always a combination of excitement and intimidation. They want it so much, but are often hesitant to believe it will finally happen.”

JHS Principal Ben Peacock noted that “most of these kids have already fulfilled all their class requirements – they have all their credits, but just weren't allowed to graduate because they didn't pass the state test.”

Former students come to the campus, where they're placed in a room with a proctor, who monitors their testing. This allows privacy in a peaceful environment, as opposed to being placed in a room with regular high school students taking the same test, he said.

While these former students have the option of receiving their original diploma by mail, Peacock invites them to come to the school for a small ceremony.

“The thing that's really powerful is when they come up, they'll say, 'We really didn't want to come, you could have sent the diploma in the mail.' But we'll get together in the office and when we clap and cheer for them, it gets emotional,” he said. “They didn't give up.”

Getting her diploma has prompted Armstrong to apply for college, with the goal of becoming a teacher.

“I'm thinking I want to do high school – I want to help a kid feel confident, to give them the courage they need and tell them, 'Hey, don't give up. You've got this,” she said. “When I become a teacher – and it's gonna happen – I can be that person, because (of her own experiences) I get it.”

Dublin said the increased number of adult graduates “is the epitome of the district motto, 'Once an Indian, always an Indian.' “As a JHS graduate myself, I'm so very proud to have a part in helping former students come back to finish earning their diploma. Most of them find out about this opportunity through classmates who share their experience, which is a tribute to the fact that people who come through JISD remain lifelong friends.” Dublin said.

Individuals interested in going back to earn their high school diploma – including those who didn't attend Jacksonville High School – can contact Dublin at the school, 903-586-3661, or email jillian.dublin@jisd.org for information.

“If you attended high school in Texas, and completed all of your credits, but did not earn a diploma due to state test scores, it CAN BE DONE!” she said. “Students who did not attend JHS, but live in our area, can test here, and then take passing scores to their former high school and get a diploma from their district.”

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