Sitting in a conference room at Jamestown High School, Tiffany Spangler is confident and poised, able to summon the troubles and the triumphs in her life with the wisdom of someone far exceeding her 18 years. She's done what a lot of high school dropouts don't do: She's come back to school and flourished.
Tiffany left school three months into her sophomore year in 2011, much to the dismay of her guidance counselor Shellee Irwin who saw a spark of potential in the student. But Tiffany had hit a rough patch in her life. The grandmother that she cherished was sick and dying; her family was in turmoil and she was lamenting the relationship with her father who'd been absent for much of her life.
"I had a horrible attitude," she says, "And I couldn't deal with all the pressure."
High school student Tiffany Spangler with mentors JHS Principal Mike McElrath and English teacher Becky Newman.
Photo by Margot Russell
Despite pleas from Irwin and her mother, Tiffany signed the paperwork and left, joining the ranks of the other 8,000 students who drop out of school every day in the United States.
But Tiffany was a different kind of dropout.
She had a reserve of resilience, perhaps formed on long days baking cookies with her grandmother, or instilled by her mother who had always insisted on good grades. And she had a few dreams that she carried with her when she walked out of school for the last time that day.
"I didn't think I would ever come back," she said.
Through a Chautauqua Works summer program, Tiffany was offered a job at Ecklof Bakery where she began kneading those dreams into loaves of bread. She had baker's hours: At 4 or 6 a.m., she'd show up for work to decorate and fill cookies and ready bread for the oven. She was immersed in her work.
"I'd walk out of the bakery with butter, oil and flour in my hair and all over my clothes. I loved being there," she recalls.
She says she always liked to be in the kitchen. She spent hours watching Emeril Lagasse on television, and she liked to watch an uncle whom she claims is a great cook. But it was the job at the bakery that gave her the discipline and initiative to go back to school. Experience became the catalyst to build self-esteem and help her to realize her own potential.
And when she walked through the doors of the high school again, she came back with a new attitude.
Tiffany had a history of being rebellious.
"I used to be cocky and arrogant at school," she said, and she didn't always get along with her teachers. She began skipping classes and her grades dropped.
But her teachers say when she re-enrolled at the high school, a new Tiffany emerged, ready to get down to business. She'd have to repeat her sophomore year, but she earned enough credits within the first six months to earn junior status. This year, she's toting an 83-percent average and, after passing all five Regents exams, is due to graduate in June.
"Tiffany was different when she came back to school," Irwin said. "There wasn't a half effort on her part. She believed that she was going to do it this time."
There are no national figures on the number of dropouts who re-enroll, but studies of cities and districts find one-third to one-half of out-of-school youths try at least once to go back and complete high school, but less than one in five succeed.
Currently, one in five students does not graduate with their peers, yet more than half of all new jobs in the next decade will require some post-secondary education.
Tiffany said coming back to school was the hardest thing to do. At first she worried about how the other students would treat her, until she realized that she was doing this for herself.
And Tiffany had mentors at the school, who she says were dedicated to coaching her through the complexities of re-enrolling and supporting her through her studies.
"I couldn't have done this without Mac (Principal Mike McElrath) and (English teacher) Mrs. Newman," she said. "They wouldn't let me fail. If I ever needed help they were there for me."
Tiffany said one of the best things about school these days is the supportive relationships she's developed with the teachers that she once had difficulties with.
But Newman said Tiffany is giving too much of the credit to others.
"She came back to school with a completely new attitude. She really wanted to be successful. If we had any part of it, it was really because she was ready to succeed."
Tiffany is applying to the culinary school at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for admission next January and envisions a "Spangler's Restaurant" somewhere in her future. For now, she's still punching in at Ecklof Bakery on the weekends and saving for a car.
Perhaps her biggest legacy at Jamestown High School will be the PowerPoint presentation she's working on that she hopes will help persuade potential dropouts to stay in school.
Tiffany had never envisioned herself becoming a role model for her four younger siblings or other students when she left school that day, but perhaps that's just another unintended consequence of her success.
"You have to believe in yourself," she said as she gathered up her things. "Dropping out is not a good choice at all."