Above: Patricia Jones finished her coursework this spring to earn her high school diploma from Columbia Options High School at the age of 71.
Story and photos
by John Hummer
Seventy-one-year-old Patricia Ann Jones of Jackson was wandering around the Jackson County Fair in 2019 with her husband R.J. when they stumbled upon a booth manned by Columbia Options High School. Patricia had long been thinking about getting her high school diploma after things did not quite work out during traditional schooling for her.
One thing that was not discovered about Patricia until her son spotted it well into her adult years is that she is dyslexic. One day he had his mom write down an address for him. When he looked at it, he said to her, “Do you know half your words are backwards?” Patricia replied, “They look fine to me.” He then explained to Patricia that he thought her mom had a dyslexia problem.
Ironically, Patricia says she has read the Harry Potter collection five times, “But I have to take my finger and go right along and sometimes I go backwards,” she said.
“I read backwards most of the time,” she continued. “I would flip the words over in my head and you get really long words.”
Patricia went all the way through her grade school years, through 11th grade, in Jackson Public Schools without it being detected.
“Nobody ever picked up on it,” she said. Some teachers along the way told her she wasn’t trying. Finally, problems with teachers and fellow students came to a boiling point at the end of 11th and at the start of 12th grade and Patricia left school and did not finish.
Patricia then got a job at the old Woolworth’s in Jackson. After she married her first husband, she got a job with Ford Motor Company. She then pursued and became a licensed cosmetologist and worked in her mother’s beauty salon from 1982 to 2000. Just prior to starting to work with her mom, she married R.J. Patricia then moved on to cutting hair in the Maple Ridge senior living complex in Jackson until two years ago.
At one point in her late 30s, Patricia had started adult education in East Jackson. After she had taken a few classes in their program, the district dropped it.
“So, I just said ‘that’s that’,” she said.
Fast forward to summer of 2019. After she and Columbia Options High principal Lisa Klink talked at that booth at the fair, Klink put her in touch with Options adult education teacher Melissa Adams. Adams then worked with Patricia to get her transcripts together from the various schools she had been enrolled through her school years.
Columbia Options High School graduate Patricia Ann Jones, right, 71, stands proud with her adult education teacher, Melissa Adams.
“We were able to get her requirements so that we could make sure that she could complete the program through the State of Michigan,” Adams said. Patricia met the requirements of the program and completed an assessment test to be able to officially enroll her in the Options program. It took her two tries, but with her persistence, she passed and got in.
“That way we could educate her at the level that was appropriate,” Adams continued.
But just why would Patricia want to finish her high school education at the age of 71?
“How can I tell my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren to do better in school and make sure they finish if I hadn’t?” she said matter-of-factly. “You can’t tell kids to do something you didn’t do yourself.”
Another reason for finishing now is that Patricia would like to work again. She has her eyes on a door greeter’s job at Meijer or a similar retail store.
“It’ll give me something extra to do,” she says. “A lot of your stores – you can’t even get in without a high school education.”
“These places absolutely do check to see if you’ve got a diploma,” said Klink.
Patricia’s program to complete high school began in August of 2019. The Columbia Options adult ed program is now all online with after-school in-person hours as needed. She took and completed her English, math, history, and biology required classes.
“I watch the History Channel a lot, so history was really easy for me,” she said. (More below)
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“That’s one of the beautiful things about alternative ed,” said Adams. “Not only are we allowed to take in students who have given up or find it a challenge, we’re able to work to make sure that their needs are met for this program.” Adams made sure her program at Options was right for Patricia.
Since Patricia doesn’t have internet access at home, she faithfully went to the Jackson District Library Eastern Branch to use their computers to complete all of her coursework.
“She was very, very dedicated and very persistent,” Klink said. “We would hear from her several times a week.She’s a perfect example of what we really try to do here. It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at with your education, we can meet your needs.”
For Adams, the satisfaction is being able to watch students come to grips with their challenges, climb the mountains, overcome those challenges, and be able to do what they’ve always wanted to do.
“And to watch them start to be able to believe in themselves,” she says. “You are able to overcome disabilities when you choose to. You’re able to do it when you want to.”
When Adams first met Patricia, she said the anxiety just kind of poured off of her about school.
“It was heartbreaking to watch,” Adams said. “Every other word out of her mouth was ‘I can’t do this’. Then, to be there and watchsuccess, after success, after success – the small steps – even at almost 72. To see her be able to accomplish and complete that challenge– it fills my heart to watch every single success story I have, and that’s why I do what I do.”
“You’re been such an inspiration the whole time,” Klink said to Patricia. I could tell you had your heart set on this goal.”
Patricia has a message to fellow citizens and future students in similar shoes contemplating on finishing an educational goal. And just what is that message?
“You’re never too old to learn,” she said proudly.
Patricia will officially receive her diploma during Columbia Options graduation ceremony on Aug. 18. That will indeed be one of the happiest days of her life.