At 13, Nicole Ellison was removed from her home by child protective services following repeated physical and emotional abuse. Her mother was an addict and Ellison’s life was one of instability, high mobility and loneliness. She took refuge in school because it was a safe place, but not necessarily a place where a great deal of learning took place.
After she aged out of the foster-care system at 18, she worked multiple jobs. Independent, but very lost, she instinctively enrolled in college. She failed her first semester.
“I’m thankful I didn’t give up because now, in my career, I am able to pour back into students who are overcoming a lot of adversity themselves,” Ellison said. “What kept me from being a statistic was education. I can lose my house, my car, my family but no one can take my education away from me.”
Ellison is EPIC Charter Schools’ director of college and career readiness and most at EPIC know her favorite quote is “The two most important days in anyone’s life are the day they are born and the day they figure out why.” She believes she figured out her why when she started serving EPIC students because a big part of her job is to connect with students who have dropped out of school or are in danger of dropping out - students who often are just like she was. She asks them a lot of questions.
“We have very deep conversations with them about their goals and what their future looks like,” she said, adding that getting those kids back on some sort of path and making sure they don’t give up on their education is the primary goal. “I talk to thousands of kids over the course of a year and not one of them has ever said, ‘Man, I wish I wouldn’t have come back and finished my education.’”
One student Ellison pointed to, Dalton Caffrey, is an EPIC senior. He already has a full year of concurrent enrollment at Tulsa Tech and has received multiple job offers. He came to EPIC six years ago after his family life became unstable. One of three boys of a single dad, the family’s financial situation forced his dad to work multiple jobs, which often made it difficult to arrange or afford transportation to school. But now, because he can attend school from home, that stress has been alleviated.
If not for EPIC, Caffrey’s transportation issues and need for flexible scheduling could have negatively impacted his education - making him vulnerable to being a dropout statistic. And now, after he graduates high school and Tulsa Tech, Caffrey plans to work for a local fiber optics company. He said he wants to help support his family, and credits his EPIC teacher for pointing him in the right direction.
“I did a lot of research myself, but my teacher pushed me and helped me gain confidence to take that extra step to apply and go try and step outside of my comfort zone,” Caffrey said. “She was incredibly supportive.”
Ellison said stories like Caffrey’s are what make her job so rewarding.
“Statistically, I should’ve been in prison, an addict or homeless,” she said. “When I was 18, I struggled most with who I was going to be. The way out of that darkness for me was education. That’s the message I want to send.”
EPIC is the state’s third-largest public school system. It serves approximately 29,000 students statewide in the 2019-2020 school year and currently employs more than 1,100 certified teachers and principals located in every county across the state. For more information, visit www.epiccharterschools.org