To finish high school, Anika Gillespie-Jones became a regular on Sonoma County Transit’s Route 20, taking the hour-long bus ride from her Rio Nido home to Santa Rosa Junior College.
Enrolled in El Molino High School’s independent study program, called Russian River Ramparts, Gillespie-Jones took an unusual path to completing her high school studies and preparing to graduate with El Mo’s Class of 2015 in June.
Next stop for the 18-year-old dancer, aspiring actress and accomplished cook will be at Chico State University in the fall, where she intends to become the first member of her family to earn a bachelor’s degree.
After struggling at Santa Rosa High two years ago, Gillespie-Jones switched to Ramparts, meeting once a week with her teacher and four other students at the Guerneville Veterans Hall, turning in the assignments she had completed on her own since the last session. She’s made straight B’s and earned additional academic credit commuting to SRJC, taking courses in political science, ecology, theater and American Sign Language, among others.
Gillespie-Jones applied to 15 colleges, was accepted by six and chose Chico State for a “change of scenery” and the financial aid it offered.
Some teens would lose their way without a more structured schooling, but Gillespie-Jones found it suited her.
“It takes a while because you don’t have a teacher in front of you (every day),” she said. “It’s all you. You’re on your own. You have to make a schedule; you have to stick to your schedule.”
Carin Johnson, the Ramparts teacher and program coordinator, said Gillespie-Jones displayed “an honest passion to learn and go to college.”
“Instead of giving up as many students do, or finding excuses, she simply found a way to better discipline herself in order to meet deadlines,” Johnson said. “I believe she will do well wherever her education leads her.”
Gillespie-Jones said the source of her motivation is her mother, Angela, a single mother since the age of 16. The two share a home in Rio Nido with a cat, no car and no cable TV.
“She didn’t want me to go through the same hardships as she did,” Gillespie-Jones said. “She told me many times if I want something to go out and get it.”
The two women cook, watch DVD movies on television and took sign language classes together at SRJC. Angela has earned a high school equivalency certificate and is continuing her studies at the junior college.
Gillespie-Jones, who’s worn her hair in dreadlocks since age 3 — “before they were cool” — was the only African-American girl in her class from fifth through eighth grade at Guerneville School, where she said she was teased and taunted for her appearance.
“They’d say I could hide money in my hair,” she recalled.
There are now more African-American families along the Russian River, Gillespie-Jones said, referring to her mother’s comment that “there’s more color” in the community.
Gillespie-Jones said she hasn’t missed the social atmosphere of a conventional high school campus. Life at home with her mother is “just fine,” she said, with plenty of books, movies and a Wi-Fi connection.
She is, however, looking forward to attending the El Molino senior prom with her boyfriend, an event that celebrates the “end of school” and the beginning of life as an adult, she said.