PAWTUCKET — When 18-year-old Amanda Ambers walks across the Tolman High School stage on June 6 to get her diploma, she will have a full cheering section consisting of her mother, sister, brother and three-year-old son.
It is Amber's mother, Sandra, a mom herself at age 15, who will be the most proud of having the first high school graduate in the family. Her sister also had a child at 15 and her brother was a teen dad. Yet, ironically, it was the birth of her son, Dante, and the desire to give him a better life, that kept Ambers off the drop-out track she had been headed down since 7th grade.
While she will be walking with Tolman's graduating class, Ambers is a student of the city's Alternative Learning Program. Now in its 9th year, the program is designed to help students who are considered to be at risk of dropping out of school or in need of extra educational intervention in a smaller classroom environment.
According to Pawtucket School Department social worker Laurie Randall, intervention was something that Ambers was found to be in desperate need of after showing poor grades, spotty attendance and a troubling lifestyle while at at Slater Junior High School. By 9th grade, when she arrived at the ALP, she had been arrested on drug charges and was on a two-year probation for breaking and entering. A month into her freshman year, Ambers also learned that she was pregnant.
“She had a really tough freshman year,” said Randall. “Amanda didn't come here much. She would show up for a day or two and then be out for three. There were always excuses about having a doctor's appointment, or morning sickness, you name it.” Ambers had been on home instruction with a tutor for the last few months of her pregnancy, and Randall said, “I really didn't expect her to come back here after she had the baby.”
However, with the birth of her son that spring, something changed in Ambers. “I became a single mother and I left my baby's father,” she explained. “I knew I had to change for him.”
Ambers said her mother, who never completed high school herself, encouraged her youngest child to return to the ALP. “She said she would help with the baby so I could finish school and do something with my life,” she stated.
Randall said that when Ambers showed up in September to begin 10th grade, she had a different attitude about school and began to turn her life around. Her baby's father, who was in his 20s and involved in drugs and other criminal activity, was no longer in her life. He had not even been present for Dante's birth. “It was just my mom and me in the delivery room,” she stated.
Although still disliking school and having some learning disabilities to contend with, Ambers began to attend classes regularly and take her studies more seriously. Some of the changes can be attributed to having to fulfill her probation requirements, Randall admits. So much so that when the probation period ended and Ambers was going to be “cut loose” from the court system, Randall worried that the young woman would start to backslide. However, much to Randall's delight, Ambers not only remained focused on her schoolwork but also became something of a role model and mentor for many of the younger students at the ALP.
Ambers said that she had gone to school regularly through the 6th grade, but during her 7th and 8th grades, she began skipping classes and “just being in a mess. I didn't want to go. I didn't listen,” she said. Hanging around with the “wrong people,” including a much older boyfriend who was involved in illegal drug use and other criminal activities, contributed to her troubles.
Ambers said her mother tried to persuade her to leave her boyfriend, but she wouldn't. “I should have listened,” she said, in retrospect. She noted that Dante's father never even came around to see their son and eventually wound up in prison.
Today, Ambers said she often feels the urge to give younger students advice. “I see these young girls holding hands and kissing their boyfriends, and I just want to tell them what can happen,” she stated. Others come to her for advice. “I tell them the truth. I want them to learn from my experiences,” she stated.
These days, Ambers' life is much more sober, settled and happy, thanks in part to her boyfriend, Osbert Duoa. The two met at the ALP three years ago, soon after Ambers gave birth to Dante, and they have been together ever since. Duoa, who had a poor school record and had been involved in criminal and gang activity, is graduating this year as well. She especially credits Duoa for the kindness and support he has shown her son.
“Me and him were on the same path of destruction,” Ambers said. I changed him because I was already changed. I helped him to change his life,” she said
Ambers said that after graduation, she has plans to become a massage therapist and is enrolled in a 12-month program at the Lincoln Technical Institute. She likes the idea of learning about how the muscles work and how stress can be soothed away by massage.
Even with her mother's help, it hasn't been easy. Described as “a handful,” Dante has displayed some behavioral problems that have caused him to be ousted from a couple of local daycare centers. Randall is trying to help Ambers to get the toddler into a more therapeutic setting so she can attend her massage therapy classes. “My son reminds me of me. I can see me in my son's footsteps,” Ambers admits.
The petite and pretty young woman said she always wears two pieces of jewelry that are important to her: a silver necklace bearing her son's name and another necklace holding a ring given to her by Duoa. She also proudly speaks of having tattoos of both her son and her mother's name.
Randall calls Ambers' successful completion of her high school program “amazing” given the amount of obstacles that she had in her way. She noted that while teen pregnancy is often the reason why many young women drop out of school, in Ambers' case, the birth of her son gave her the impetus to obtain her diploma. “She persevered. If she can do it, anyone can do it,” said Randall.