Reproduced with permission from the June 16, 2007 edition of the Nashua Telegraph, Nashua New Hampshire.
Heather Charles could not get out of bed. On a school day in 2006, much like many others before it, the Nashua High School North honors student set her alarm for 5:30 a.m. to have extra time to get ready for her junior-level classes.
But instead of bounding out of bed when the alarm sounded, Charles found she couldn’t move at all. “My body hurt all over,” Charles, now 18, said. “My bones hurt and my joints felt stiff.”
Charles’ mother, Sheila Charles, thought her daughter was just fighting a virus, but when the same scenario repeated itself morning after morning, she took her daughter to be tested. All the tests came back normal, despite Charles’ symptoms, which only got worse as the days went by, leaving her bedridden much of the time.
“This didn’t make any sense,” the senior Charles said, recalling her frustration as she watched her daughter’s stellar high school record get ruined with every school day missed and every class dropped. “I had an honors student who had no problems and loved school, and then all of a sudden, I’ve got a child that can’t wake up in the day.”
The Need For An Alternative
Eventually diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, Charles struggled with her illness throughout the rest of her junior year, throughout the summer, and into the next year. By the end of this year’s first quarter, Charles’ chances of graduating with her class were blown, and she began looking for an alternative that would at least allow her the opportunity to get a high school diploma.
The Nashua School District Community Adult School proved to be that program. Charles was one of 87 students Friday night to graduate with a diploma from the night school program. It is the school’s largest graduating class in 20 years. [Click here to see Heather's graduation photo in the Nashua Telegraph story.]
“Each of you here today has overcome many obstacles, both academic and personal,” adult education director Michelle Papanicolau told the students who clutched their diplomas at the ceremony inside the Nashua High School North auditorium. “I wish that every one of you continue to persevere and obtain your dreams, as nothing is unattainable,” she said.
The students, many wearing purple graduation gowns, others in gowns of other colors, hugged their teachers and family as they filed out of the packed theatre, some occasionally stopping to pose for photos. Although some of the graduates were students who had previously dropped out of high school, many others were transfer students like Charles, who for a variety of reasons found they could not attend school in the day.
“So much weight was taken off of me,” Charles said of the relief she felt after starting night school. “It really killed me that I couldn’t go to school; I felt guilty every morning.”
Charles’ mother is also grateful a program was available to give her daughter the schedule she needed to graduate. “It is a good option for people who are having difficulty making traditional school work,” Sheila Charles said.
Not Easy to Be Different
But choosing the option isn’t usually easy for many of the transferring students, according to night school teacher Amy Woods. “A lot of people have this notion that, well, you do it in 12 years. You get it done, and when their path deviates from that, it is tough for your average 16- to 17-year-old to say ‘Hey, I am not going to be on the same path as everybody else,’ ” Woods said.
Woods, who also teaches day classes at Nashua High School North, began teaching night classes for the Salem School District in 1998 and switched to teaching night classes in Nashua when she came to the district three years ago.
Woods said she is continually amazed at the stigma that can sometimes accompany a student’s struggle to get their high school diploma at night. “To me that is completely erroneous, because if you are in night school, you are taking the steps on your own to make sure that you have the same tools as everybody else,” Woods said.
Serious, Committed Students
Although most of the students are in their teens, Woods said most are very serious students who are intolerant of others who waste their class time, partly because they are paying to be there. Class costs range from $150 to $325.
“Your typical night school student’s attitude does not take for granted the same types of things that your day school students do,” Woods said. “A lot of the behavioral or maturity concerns that you see in the day have a tendency to disappear because you don’t want to be “that person” in front of people who are really committed to getting their work done, learning something, and then moving on.”
For Charles, moving on will mean taking some time off to get better before going after her goal to become a first-grade teacher. “I’m just going to try to take care of my health so that I can go to college and accomplish something without having to worry about what happened in high school.”
Editor's Note: The next challenge for students like Heather Charles will be to earn a college degree. In that respect, DePaul University in Chicago is a pioneer.
The Chronic Illness Initiative (CII) at DePaul University's School for New Learning helps students with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, and other illnesses to earn college degrees at their own pace. Recognizing that these illnesses "unpredictably increase and decrease in severity," the program offers flexibility, support, and the option for students "anywhere in the world" to earn a degree completely online, according to CII Director Lynn Royster, PhD.
Most of the DePaul program's current 150 students are enrolled in the distance learning classes. To learn more about the CII, go to http://www.snl.depaul.edu/current/chronic.asp#Distance
To date, says Dr. Royster, "I don't know of any other program like ours." But the School for New Learning is working hard to pave the way for others, through its annual "Symposium on Chronic Illness and Postsecondary Education." The 2007 Symposium, held on May 23, brought together more than 80 interested postsecondary faculty members, patient support group members, community service people, and students, according to Dr. Royster, who says she is working now on a summary of the breakout groups' recommendations.