Mayra Cardenas, a Gainesville resident, has grown up fast, and what’s on her plate each day defies the typical schedule of a 20-year-old navigating the stages of early adulthood.
“Being a full-time mom is pretty much everything,” she said.
Yet, somehow, Cardenas manages a juggling act few her age would ever have to consider.
In addition to child-rearing, Cardenas also works a few nights a week at Walmart, and squeezes in time to finish her high school coursework through a unique charter program operating throughout North Georgia.
Mountain Education Charter High School operates 16 instructional sites across the region, including in Hall County (as well as Dawson, Forsyth, Lumpkin, White and Habersham counties, to name a few) at the Lanier College & Career Academy campus off Atlanta Highway.
“We try to leave no footprint,” said principal Kim Davis. “It’s a great working relationship.”
The school’s central office is located in Cleveland, and the charter school that gives a second chance to non-traditional students is expanding to Chattooga, Floyd and Pickens counties.
The Hall site opened in July 2016, and 123 students have graduated, moving at their own pace, with no daily mandates, and hours for study available from 4-8 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
Davis said 10 local high schools feed into the program, with many students coming from Gainesville and East Hall high schools, for example.
“When a student is not finding success in a day school for whatever reason,” Davis said, that’s when come to Mountain Education.
The Hall County site has a resource room for special education needs, mentors and tutors for about 200 full-time students and year-round enrollment.
“You come when you can, you leave when you need to,” Davis said.
Students must have completed eighth grade and can attend until the age of 21 (or 22 years old for special education students).
“Everybody works at their own pace,” Davis said.
But the school does have administrators reviewing student progress, and teachers from other area schools are on site for instructional support. Counselors, social workers and graduation coaches are also part of the mix.
Mountain Education fits somewhere between a traditional high school and those who earn their GED.
Some students may come looking to get ahead and finish high school early, Davis said, especially those already working in some trade field.
“Some kids just don’t want to do high school,” Davis added. “They know what they want to do.”
Greyson Sims, 19, found himself enrolled at Mountain Education after moving back and forth during the first few years of high school, from White County to North Carolina and back to Northeast Georgia.
Eventually, Sims began carving his own path, finding work at a local Ace Hardware retail support center.
“I just didn’t really fit in day school,” he said. “I wanted to work.”
Sims said he considered not returning to school at all. He’s making good money for a young man and has more freedom and independence than most his age.
But Sims said he’d already come too far to quit.
“There’s really no point in giving up at this time,” he added. “It’s always good to have a high school diploma on hand.”
Sims just has a few English papers to write before he graduates. He then hopes to launch his own business making and selling popular T-shirts, hoodies, car wraps and stickers.
“It’s all about the side hustles,” he said.
Other students, like Cardenas, are making up for lost time, and “credit recovery” is a big motivator for many of them to attend the charter school.
As her absences piled up while pregnant, keeping steady with her coursework at a regular public high school became too difficult, Cardenas said.
“It’s kind of hard with all the classes in the morning,” she added.
But Cardenas has good role models in her life – and aspirations for her son.
“Now, as a Hispanic, times are changing,” she said. “You can do so much more. I want my son to benefit from the opportunities I’m able to provide for him thanks to Mountain Ed. Once you have a kid, it’s not for you anymore. Nothing’s for you anymore. It’s for your kid.”
Like many students, Cardenas was registered within a week of applying about 18 months ago, and got started right away on that second chance that is the charter school’s mission.
Now, Cardenas has just a math/finance class and a physical science class to finish before earning her diploma, and she hopes to complete all her coursework sometime this summer.
Cardenas said she hopes to continue her education by studying physical therapy at a local college or university. Her family has medical practice in its blood, she said, with siblings and relatives working as cardiologists and nurse practitioners.
“I see my parents getting older and I want to help them more in their day-to-day life,” Cardenas said.