Listen: High school student battles the odds to graduate

MPR’s Laura Yuen followed Diamond Syas, a Black student at Kennedy High School in Bloomington, for the course of a school year to see what it would take for her to make it to graduation day.

Syras describes the many obstacles she has worked to overcome in attaining a diploma, including working multiple jobs and finding herself homeless.


2017 NABJ Salute to Excellence Award, RADIO > Feature > Market 16 and Below category

2017 The Gracie Allen Award, Radio News Feature - Non-Commercial Local category


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SPEAKER 1: All this spring, we've been reporting on Minnesota's high school graduation gap, the challenges for many students of color to get a diploma within four years. For some, the journey to cross that stage in June is a precarious one. At Kennedy High School in Bloomington, most of the students are low income and kids of color. Laura Yuen followed one student for the course of a school year to see what it would take for her to make it to graduation day.

LAURA YUEN: OK. So go ahead and just say your name and who you are.

DIAMOND SAEZ: I'm Diamond.


What if I really did talk like that? That would be funny. My name is Diamond Saez. And I'm 17 years old, in high school. This is my last year.

LAURA YUEN: I met Diamond last fall at Beacon. It's Kennedy High School's alternative learning program to help kids catch up on courses they need to graduate. Diamond, who is Black, transferred to Kennedy this year with lots of missing credits. She's wearing ripped jeans and a pink t-shirt that says "adorbs." But don't be fooled. Diamond is practically a grown lady, she tells me. Her parents aren't in the picture anymore. In fact, when we first met, she was living with her older sister, who was her guardian. And Diamond was helping raise her sister's kids.

DIAMOND SAEZ: If I don't go to work or if I don't make enough money, then we won't have a place to live. We, as in me and my sister and my nieces and nephew. Since they've been born, I pretty much have raised them with my sister. So they're like my kids. And I can't afford for that to happen. I would rather be stressed going through everything I'm going through than have them go through that.

LAURA YUEN: For Diamond, school is an escape, a refuge.

DIAMOND SAEZ: I actually like school. I actually do like school.

LAURA YUEN: But it's not the most pressing thing in her life. Her sister sometimes works overnight at the gas station. So it's up to Diamond to get up in the middle of the night to soothe and feed her baby niece. It means Diamond is exhausted the next morning. She gets sick a lot. And there's no guarantee she'll be in class on any given day. But when I talked to her back in November, she said one thing is a given, graduation. It's her ticket to somewhere.

DIAMOND SAEZ: It makes me so happy to even talk about it because I can just see the future just there, instead of having to deal with now.

LAURA YUEN: This is her plan. She's going to turn 18 just before she graduates. She'll enroll in a community college and study computer networking. And she's going to bring in real money, better than the jobs she has at the Mall of America. She'll get a place of her own. But when we meet up at Kennedy several weeks later, after winter break, things have changed for Diamond, drastically. So what happened over the past month?

DIAMOND SAEZ: Ooh, that's a lot. Some personal things with my sister and me happened. And we fell off, so I ended up having to move out. So now, I'm in a teen shelter. Life, I would say, it just finds ways to turn around.

LAURA YUEN: It's not the first time she's been homeless. Diamond says when her mom kicked her out when she was 13, she went couch hopping. And years later, she lived out of her sister's car. Growing up, she moved around from one school to another, from Minneapolis, to Duluth, to North Saint Paul. But losing her home in her final year of high school is so far from what she envisioned for herself. And now, college and a career are no longer top of mind.

DIAMOND SAEZ: I'm already stressed out about school, and then graduation, and then working, and then my living situation. So I don't want to stress myself out more. My dreams of being a computer engineer are slowly dying.

LAURA YUEN: When she's forced to think, really think about her situation, she has nothing but questions for how she ended up like this.

DIAMOND SAEZ: I have an A in her class.



LAURA YUEN: Diamond's English teacher recently gave the class a writing assignment.

DIAMOND SAEZ: The next question was, what would you like to know that you have never learned? Or what do you want to know more about? My answers were, what makes parents give up on their children? Why do I work three jobs at 17? Why am I homeless? Why can't I be happy and stress-free? What's the real purpose of school? Why does family hurt you the most? Sometimes I just imagine if when I was younger, if my mom did just give me away, just give me into foster care or something, if life would be different, if my personality would be different. I just think about that every day, all the time.

LAURA YUEN: Diamond doesn't have a typical high school experience. She says she has no friends, just a few adults at school who are in her corner. Some of the teachers and staff know what Diamond is going through.

MICHELLE CHRISTIANSEN: You just shake your head and say, gosh, how do these kids do this and get through it?

LAURA YUEN: Michelle Christiansen runs the Beacon alternative program at Kennedy. She says she's in awe of Diamond, even at her low points. And back in January, this was a bad week. The stress of living in a shelter and not having a firm footing is sometimes too much for this 17-year-old to bear. And Diamond lost it. It happened when another staff person at the school called her out for being late to class. This is how Diamond remembers reacting.

DIAMOND SAEZ: You're making me even more mad because you know my situation, and then you're going to tell me to come to school on time. All right, how about you adopt me. Adopt me, provide me, drive me to school, come pick me up. Maybe I'll get here on time.

LAURA YUEN: She called the woman a word that she immediately regretted. And she apologized for it. Michelle Christiansen told Diamond to leave the school immediately, so the situation wouldn't get any worse. But Diamond doesn't even really remember it. Next thing she knew, she was sitting on a bus.

DIAMOND SAEZ: I'm so happy that miss Christiansen told me to leave. Because if she didn't tell me to leave, I would have-- something probably would have happened really bad. So I was like, I was crying, I was shaking crying. Oh yeah, you're lucky you told me to leave because I haven't been that mad in a long time. Because I'm a better person now. And I don't want to be the old Diamond.

LAURA YUEN: Diamond's entire life has been like this, fight or flight, given the instability she's experienced.

DIAMOND SAEZ: My name is Diamond, again. And this time, we're in the mall. We're eating food, spicy, really spicy food because we're both got a cold. You're eating tomatoes.

LAURA YUEN: A couple of months later, I meet her before her shift at a clothing store is about to begin. She's still determined to graduate, but it's going to be even tougher now. It's March. Diamond is still in the shelter. She has no leads on another place to live. And she's facing an ominous deadline.

DIAMOND SAEZ: Well, my time is up on the 15th of this month, so March 15.

LAURA YUEN: It's next week.

DIAMOND SAEZ: Yeah, thanks for telling me. It is. It definitely is next week.

LAURA YUEN: Diamond says her mind has been racing. She's been having trouble sleeping and eating because she has so much to think about. With all that's been thrown at her, she says she feels like she's building a pyramid, but it keeps crumbling down. She says, what is she doing wrong?

DIAMOND SAEZ: Am I missing something here? I feel like I'm missing something very important. For example, you have a dad. You have a mom. What is their job? To be a dad and a mom. Where are you at? Where am I? Who's with me? Nobody's doing their job, nobody.

LAURA YUEN: The research would agree with Diamond. Parental involvement is strongly linked with children's success in school. I wanted to call Diamond's mom, but she didn't want me to contact her. Later in the spring, Diamond found a more stable place to live. It's a transitional living center in Saint Paul, just for youth. And she can stay there for a much longer stretch of time. Last month, at Kennedy, Diamond meets again with Mrs. C, Michelle Christiansen, who coordinates the Beacon program.

MICHELLE CHRISTIANSEN: I want to talk to you about your credits, just wrap up where we are.

LAURA YUEN: She has good news. Diamond is still on track to graduate in June. Christiansen says she knows Diamond will be successful. If the last year has proved anything, it's that she has dedication.

MICHELLE CHRISTIANSEN: It's hard because I've never been in your shoes. And I know you, along with several other students, have to work 30, 40 hours a week and then come to school another 30-some hours a week. And it's exhausting.

DIAMOND SAEZ: It is very exhausting.

MICHELLE CHRISTIANSEN: But you've done it. And you're going to get through it. And you're going to graduate in June.

DIAMOND SAEZ: It's not going to feel good until my grandma gets here.

LAURA YUEN: Her grandma is coming in from out of state. Once she sees her, Diamond says she'll finally know that graduation day is for real and that she's made it. But shortly after that conversation, Diamond stopped returning my texts for a while. And she started missing a lot more school. She has only a few weeks until the end of the year. But if she's absent just one more day, she'll have to go to summer school.

The last I heard from Diamond was today. I'm not OK, she texted me. I wrote back, what happened? I'm concerned. Diamond responded with just one word that seemed to sum it up. Life, she wrote. Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio News, Bloomington.

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