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Saundra Walker and her daughter, Grace McMillan, sit around the kitchen table, their good-natured teases and giggles a happy ritual as they recount various shopping trips and long walks around D.C.
"She walks me to death," says Walker. "'Ma this, ma that!' She's got me zigzagging all around."
McMillan teases her back, remembering how her son, Cameron McMillan, asked her once why she's always making his grandmother walk so much. "I said, 'we was having fun,'" she says. "It is so fun when we go out together!"
Those fun moments and long walks help the two women forget some of the challenges they face every day. Neither of them graduated from high school, something that has had a lasting impact on their struggles to find work, security, and a better life.
Now, decades after dropping out, they're going back to school together to try to get GED diplomas. Their story is an all too common one; approximately 1 million students drop out of high school every year in the United States, and researchers have found that children whose parents graduated from high school are more likely to graduate than those whose parents do not have high school diplomas.
A 'dream dropped' after sixth grade
When Saundra Walker was a little girl she had grand dreams.
"I wanted to be a big lawyer," she says. "I wanted to fight crime!"
Walker's mother got pregnant and dropped out of school when she was 14. She worked as a maid all her life, and so she insisted Walker stay in school.
Saundra remembers loving her time and teachers in middle school, especially one.
"Miss Rosa. It was a class for slow children," she says. "If there was something we didn't understand, she took her time. Not to tell us but to show us."
But after 6th grade, "the dream dropped," Walker says. "Back in the 60's, if you were a person that learned slow, they put all the slow kids in one class. Nobody explained nothing."
Saundra felt her teachers didn't care and she wasn't learning. Then, she became pregnant. At 17, Saundra dropped out of high school. She didn't think about any long-term consequences at the time because she got work right away.
No diploma, no job
"My first job was working on the grill," Walker says. A string of minimum wage jobs followed, but work dried up a few years ago when her employer found out she hadn't graduated from high school.
"Last job I had was in 2008, cafeteria worker," Walker says. "And because I didn't have a high school diploma, they couldn't keep me on."
Today, Walker lives in free public housing and Medicaid pays her medical bills. She struggles to survive.
"The only income I have is food stamps. I go to people I know around here, older ladies, and wash for them, and I get a little change and try to save that," Walker says. "Or get some things we need here, like 99-cent dishwasher liquid or something."
Just for a moment, her warm and wise face crumples. "Some dreams don't come true," she says. "They don't."
Walker has given up her dreams of becoming a lawyer and owning her own house. But a GED certificate seems within reach, even if the classes are difficult. At 58, Walker thinks she reads at the third-grade level. But she keeps at it, mainly so she can say she kept a long-ago promise.
"If I leave this world today, I could always say that I did get it," she says. "'Cause I made a promise to my mother. It would make me feel so full. Ooh, I want it so bad."
Fighting to stop the vicious cycle
One of Walker's biggest disappointments is having three of her four children drop out of high school over the years. It felt like history repeating itself when she couldn't convince her children to change their minds, she says.
"I was angry, I hollered," she remembers. "'You want to be like me? What am I doing? Nothing, nothing.'"
One of the targets of that lecture was Grace McMillan, Walker's foster daughter, who is now 44. Raised by Walker since she was 13 years old and homeless, McMillan loved school. She had lots of friends and was in the choir and in ROTC. But there was a problem.
"I just didn't understand a lot of different things," she says. "I was passed from grade to grade. I used to ask 'what was wrong with my brain?'"
When McMillan was 16, she got pregnant. She dropped out two years later for a series of low-paying jobs: cleaning, cooking, construction. "I was working and working and working. I was what they call a 'workaholic,'" she says.
On the side, Grace had an informal catering business. For a time, life was good; her face transforms into pure joy now as she runs through the menu.
We had ribs, chicken, fish sandwiches, two different types of cake -- a butter cake and a chocolate cake," she says. "And homemade gravy: real homemade gravy with mushrooms and onions. It was like wow! We was making some pretty money!"
But the recession hit, and orders dried up. And then, when McMillan needed time off her day job for surgery, she was laid off. She hasn't been able to find other work, so she's enrolled in GED certificate classes along with her mother at Academy of Hope.
Dropout decision comes with dire consequences
Like her mother, Grace McMillan has four children. Worrying about one of them - 22-year-old Cameron McMillan, who also didn't graduate from school -- has consumed a lot of her time and energy.
"He has the beautifulest smile," she says, looking at a photo of him and laughing. "He's my first born son."
The photos are the only way she'll see that that smile, though, for the next several years. Cameron McMillan is in federal prison in Kentucky more than 300 miles away.
Cameron McMillan struggled in school because of learning disabilities. When he was 12, his father walked out, and never spoke to him again. Almost immediately, he went from a child who did homework every day to a child who didn't care if he was in class, according to Grace McMillan.
"Hooking school, being picked up by the truant officer, hanging out in the hallways, riding in stolen cars, standing with the drug boys," she says. "He thought the alternative was to be out on the streets looking for a father figure."
His behavior escalated. When he was 19, one sunny summer afternoon, Cameron was shot 16 times. Grace McMillan remembers that horrible day and the phone call she received out of the blue to let her know what happened.
"You heard the gunshots. Someone called the cell phone, and all you could hear was 'Cameron,'" she says of the scream that came through the phone. "That tore everything apart."
A different story for the next generation?
Cameron McMillan recovered and continued life on the streets. He had racked up 10 adult arrests, including for distributing cocaine and assaulting a police officer, according to court documents. Then, last year on the Fourth of July, he went up to a teenager and hit him on the head with a gun. Cameron McMillan took his cell phone, shoes and ID. A few hours later, he robbed a group of teenagers, assaulting one of them as well.
Judge Heidi M. Pasichow, the D.C. Superior Court associate judge who tried that most recent case, says Cameron McMillan has built up what she calls "a criminal resume." He's locked up for armed robbery and unlawful possession of a firearm; the earliest he could be released is 2017.
Grace McMillan can't help but think that things would have been different if Cameron had stayed in school.
"I lost my son to the streets and I'll tell anyone, if they could help their kids, don't allow them to throw their life away just because they want to," she says.
The causes and consequences of dropping out are often intertwined. Low-income students are more likely to drop out, which means they can't get jobs that pay well and continue lives of poverty.
Four generations of Walker's and McMillan's family haven't graduated from high school. They have many of the risk factors for dropping out, including learning disabilities, teen pregnancy, and drug abuse. And it's not clear whether or how the cycle could be broken.
Cameron himself is a father. Before he was incarcerated, he apologized in court to the mothers of his two children: one son is one year old and the other is 7 months.
This story was produced with help from Ginger Moored and assistance of Natalie Yuravlivker. It is part of WAMU 88.5's American Graduate series. "American Graduate - Let's Make It Happen" is a public media initiative supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Source: The Silent Epidemic, 2006, Civic Enterprises