By the end of her junior year, Chanel Broeker was done. She missed huge chunks of class time at Senior High, and her life outside of school was in turmoil. The only reason she found herself back in the school office was to get an exit letter to officially drop out, which would allow her to pursue a high school equivalent degree later.
But, exit letter in hand, she paused.
“Everyone here just believed in me so much, I felt really bad about letting them down,” Broeker said.
She re-enrolled, and has more than rewarded that faith. She’s tackled a full course load, plus enough credit recovery classes that she basically finished two school years of work in one.
She’ll graduate on time with her peers on Sunday. It’s been a long road.
Broeker moved from Casper, Wyoming, to Billings during the seventh grade. She said she was bullied in Casper and that she struggled socially in Billings.
“I always hated school since seventh grade,” she said.
She first attended West High her freshman year, then moved to Senior her sophomore year.
Broeker had taken honors courses in middle school, and continued that track into high school. But she struggled, and dropped down to regular courses.
Senior math teacher Brandon Anton had her as an algebra 2 student her sophomore year. He saw a bright student who struggled with issues beyond her control outside the classroom, which affected her performance at school.
“It was really rough for her,” he said. But he put extra effort into trying to build a connection with Broeker.
English teacher Doug Oltrogge also had Broeker in class her sophomore year.
“If you were to grade a student based off of their raw potential, Chanel would have the highest marks imaginable,” he said.
But he knew she was struggling outside of school, and considering dropping out.
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“She was at a crossroads,” he said. “She was leaning toward that as being her only option. ... I couldn’t judge her harshly if she had chosen that.”
Things would get worse before they got better. Broeker skipped school often, feeling disconnected from life at Senior. Things bottomed out her junior year. She was working a job, and didn’t see a path to continuing high school, and had effectively dropped out.
But there was nagging thought: “When I did drop out, it was not better,” she said.
When she decided to return for her senior year, she had a daunting task ahead of her. But she also found more connection at Senior.
“I really didn’t like it (school) until about this year,” she said. “I made a friend, long story short.”
That social success snowballed into academic success. Despite her heavy course load, her grade point average doubled.
“She really turned around a lot,” Anton said. “She cares, and she wants to do well.”
Even when Broeker was skipping school, those seeds of motivation lingered. With a chance to graduate with her peers in sight, and with a chance to resurrect the possibility of attending college, she unlocked them.
“When I was little, they told me that I was a smart kid,” she said. “I wanted to be a smart kid, still.”
Oltrogge saw that spark during her sophomore year, but turmoil in her life suppressed it.
“School might be the only thing even close to a life raft available to those students, ... not to say that that guarantees success or anything,” he said. “I don’t know if a teacher can bridge the gap that can be created by the absence of a support network outside of school, … but it can at least provide a lifeline.”
Broeker decided to grab the lifeline.
“Recognizing your own agency is the difference between giving up and plowing through adversity,” Oltrogge said. “What ultimately matters is that the student has retained the agency not to be an actor in their life but a director in it.”
Broeker will turn 18 in August, well after she graduates. She hopes to pursue college, and one day move to a major city. But she also has more immediate plans.
She intends to change her last name to Jolley, taking her mother's last name. It's a deeply personal decision for her, but not the first she's made to reclaim her identity.