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A diploma at last

Friday promises to be the happiest day of Kristi Whitehead’s life since the birth of her son three years ago.

Over the last seven months, the 20-year-old, two-time high school dropout managed to complete more than a year’s worth of high school credits, while caring for her son, debilitated mother, half-sister Tristyn, stepbrother Dawson and the family’s three horses, four dogs, three cats and ferret.

On Tuesday, Whitehead was informed that she had completed the requirements for graduation and, on June 10, will receive her modified diploma at the Eagle Point High School graduation.

“I don’t think I’ll make it across the stage before I bawl my eyes out,” she says.

Whitehead was 16 years old and already through her first trimester before she realized she was pregnant, which she describes as "the scariest thing."

Whitehead’s mom, Marie Hoover, a retired Pacific Oasis wildland firefighter, recalls being on a fireline when she received a call from a friend that Whitehead was pregnant. She remembers pacing up and down the road for more than an hour trying to process the news.

“I came home and didn’t say anything,” Hoover says. “I let her tell me and then said, ‘What are we going to do?’ It was already a done deal. It was just the initial shock. Since then it’s been the biggest eye-opener and blessing for her and me, but it was definitely a surprise.”

On Feb. 28, 2013, Whitehead gave birth to a healthy, beautiful baby boy, Brodie Hoover — 6 pounds 14 ounces and 19 inches long.

Whitehead had spent the first half of her junior year waddling around the Rogue River High School campus, craving spicy Mexican food and having to excuse herself from class every 15 minutes to use the restroom.

Whitehead took a month of maternity leave after Brodie was born, but by the time she returned to school, she was already so far behind that, after only two weeks, she dropped out.

“I was torn between missing my son and trying to get an education,” says Whitehead. “I dropped out because I was so far behind, and I just couldn’t handle the stress.”

When her family moved from their home 17 miles east of Rogue River — the last driveway on the bus route and a two-hour bus ride to the high school — to a more convenient location in White City, Whitehead decided to give school another shot.

She thought she was on track to graduate from Eagle Point High School on time, but later found out she was 8.5 credits short.

“I was devastated,” she says. “They told me I was on track, and then all of a sudden they came to me and said, ‘Nope, you’re not going to make it.’ I was also working as a hostess at the Apple Peddler and later at the Lil Pantry (Market).”

Disappointed by the news, Whitehead dropped out, again. Now she calls it “the summer I lost my way.”

“I didn’t feel wanted,” she says. “I didn’t know who I could look up to, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

She didn’t go home that summer, leaving her young boy with her mom. Instead, she hung out with friends, couch surfing and sleeping in her 1996 Jeep.

“I knew I was in the wrong,” she says. “I realized it was my fault that I was in the predicament I was in, and if I had pulled my head out of my you-know-what, I probably wouldn’t have been in that predicament,” Whitehead says, adding that while she never did drugs, the summer of 2014 was full of bad decisions.

“I had been on her to go back to school or get a job,” says Hoover.

“But getting a job these days without a high school diploma is not that simple,” Whitehead interjects.

Later that summer, Hoover was injured by a fallen tree while fighting a fire in Washington and has since had 11 surgeries and been forced to retire.

Since then, Whitehead has had to fill in as a caregiver for her son and siblings and mother, preparing food, cleaning house, taking her sister to school and mom to doctor’s appointments, and even changing her mom’s colostomy bags for awhile.

Returning to school hadn’t crossed her mind until last November, when Phil Ortega, Eagle Point’s attendance, student services and homeless student support facilitator, knocked on her door.

Ortega explains that Eagle Point schools Superintendent Cynda Rickert takes dropout recovery very seriously. Ortega estimates he’s made more than 150 home visits this year alone to build relationships with kids who are struggling or skipping and to encourage those who’ve dropped out to come back.

“About 75 percent of kids who’ve dropped out come back,” Ortega says. “Just this year, we graduated about 31 kids who had given up but came back.

“We’re trying to build civility in our kids, and this is one of the ways we do that. We owe it to them to give them every opportunity,” says Ortega, adding that some kids are only a class or test away from graduation.

In Whitehead’s case, she was 8.5 credits short of the 24 credits required by the state to graduate. She also qualified for a modified diploma, an option given to students who “have a ‘documented history’ of an inability to maintain grade level achievement due to significant learning and instructional barriers, or a documented history of a medical condition that creates a barrier to achievement,” according to the Oregon Department of Education.

As Ortega and Whitehead watched Brodie playing outside, he asked her what she would tell her son one day when he asked why she didn’t graduate from high school. He also offered to work with her to customize an education plan that would work for her situation. Because she would turn 21 this July, this was her last chance to earn a high school diploma.

Whitehead says she was reminded of her promise to her grandma, who died six years ago, to graduate and knew it was the best thing she could do for her and her son’s future.

“So I came back and worked my butt off,” she says.

Whitehead worked with Ortega and teachers at the Upper Rogue Center for Educational Opportunity to create a plan that gave her the flexibility she needed as a single mom and caregiver but with the accountability required to keep her focused.

She was required to be at the URCEO 12 hours a week. She took language arts, physical education and science, and the staff worked to develop electives with assignments and community service around her current responsibilities.

She took parenting classes, logged community service hours doing yard work and taking care of her mom and documented her experiences as a caretaker. She also volunteered for the district’s human resources and special education departments. All told, she spent more than 270 hours on her elective credits and, on Tuesday, had passed the necessary tests and was set to graduate.

“It was a family effort,” says Nicole Leaf, a teacher at the URCEO. “We had a lot of people working to get her to graduate. She had a lot of support from the (district office), our team and the principal here.”

Whitehead says the last few months have been rough, studying, taking care of her family and grieving the loss of her great-grandmother, who passed away about three months ago, as well as other loved ones.

“Everything just fell apart in the middle of me trying to do my school,” she says. “It was boom, boom, boom, and I was just trying to hold myself together.”

Hoover says that she, like the rest of her family, is ecstatic to see Whitehead graduate.

“I’d been told before she was going to graduate so didn’t get my hopes up until last night,” she says Wednesday.

Whitehead’s stepdad and stepbrother are working as millwrights in Alabama and couldn’t afford to take the time off and buy a plane ticket to her graduation.

However, they and her mom have promised to buy her a camera for a graduation gift.

Whitehead wants to be a photographer but doesn't own a camera. Currently, she uses her mom’s phone and her school iPad, which she has to return, to take pictures.

Whitehead is interested in taking photography classes at Rogue Community College but hasn’t looked into it yet as she has been so focused on just graduating.

“I want to take pictures of wildland fires, bull riding, monster trucks, sports, dirt bikes, BMX, nature, everything,” she says.

Whitehead’s whole family accompanied her to Ross Dress for Less to help her choose a dress that she could wear with her cowboy boots to graduation.

After graduation, Whitehead says they’re planning to go to Texas Roadhouse for dinner and then home so she can change back into her Wranglers for a bonfire to finish off the celebration.

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.

Kristi Whitehead, 20, a 2016 Eagle Point graduate, plays with her son, Brodie Hoover, 3, at a park in Eagle Point on Wednesday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch