Trung Cao had hit rock bottom.
"I made a lot of mistakes," said Cao, a 17-year-old former Hillsborough High student. "I failed ninth grade twice and 10th grade once. I didn't show up to school, got caught with illegal possession on school campus when I did go. My name kept coming up during school meetings, and the principal finally had to do something about it," he said.
"It makes me upset looking back because I disappointed people, was a good football player, and I threw it all away because I wanted to have fun."
Cao had a decision to make.
"My guidance counselor said it would be a miracle if I ever graduated, and it wasn't likely I was going to," he said. "They gave me a choice: Do their G.E.D. program or get kicked out of school. I took the chance by taking my G.E.D."
Cao is completing his G.E.D. He plans to attend Hillsborough Community College, transfer to a university, major in graphic design and start playing football again.
That kind of hope is what guidance counselors don't want students to lose. Whatever the reason was for dropping out or getting expelled, you still have options, said Marcie Scholl, dropout prevention specialist at Wharton High.
"I have many students come into my office thinking of dropping out, but by the time we help them, not many end up actually doing it," said Scholl. "The biggest reason why students decide to drop out is because they're either raising themselves, or they're overwhelmed with school."
Cao realized he didn't want the life of a dropout. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, dropouts are more likely to face poverty and have an increased chance of committing crimes. "In this day and age, you need an education," said Scholl. "Yes, there are people who've been successful without one, but the vast majority of dropouts have not. If you decide to drop out and not do anything about it, you're looking at hard labor and little to no money."
On average over their lifetimes, recent high school dropouts will earn $200,000 less than high school graduates and $800,000 less than college graduates.
"If a student has dropped out, they can get their G.E.D. at any age. If not, they can go to an adult school. And of course, if they're young, they can always just come back to high school," Scholl said.
"Stop, take a deep breath, and talk to an adult about your problems. It's hard to go back to school and get things in order, but it's been done."
Cao is proof.
"If I had a second chance, I would do it completely differently," he said. "I'd do my homework, I'd listen to my teachers, I'd participate in class, I'd focus, I'd stop bullying fellow classmates and be respectful to them. . . .
"I didn't know what I wanted; I didn't think about consequences. You have to step back and really look at the bigger picture."