GREENE COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Former South Greene High School student Kandace Wilhoit told News Channel 11 that attending her senior prom has always been a dream of hers.
However, her high school experience didn’t go exactly as planned. During her senior year at South Greene High School, Kandace said she became pregnant. She said she tried attending classes to finish out the year, but balancing the pregnancy, her job and dealing with the judgment of others made continuing on campus difficult.
Luckily for her, Greene County Schools offer an alternative education program through the Glenwood Educational Center coined “CHOICES.” Kandace said she enrolled in the CHOICES program in late September, leaving South Greene and taking on a much more manageable workload.
Through the program, students are only required to achieve 22 credits in order to graduate and can do so online as opposed to the on-campus requirement of 28 credits to graduate.
According to program officials, CHOICES is designed to help students who are behind on credits or have medical complications such as pregnancy or a medical procedure, along with those in unusual family circumstances.
The requirements for entering the program include being at least 17 years of age and enrollment in Greene County Schools for at least one term. However, there are also cons to the program, meaning students who enroll give up the right to attend extracurricular school activities such as prom, dances, pep rallies and sports.
The policy is outlined both on the program’s website and on the form Kandace signed to enroll, but she said when she was forced to make the difficult choice to enroll, she was distraught, unaware of what she was truly signing, and saw it as the only option to continuing her education.
“I was in tears, she just told me to sign it and I would be in the CHOICES program. She didn’t explain it, she didn’t read it to me. I was in tears because I didn’t want to leave school, but I knew it was the best thing for me and my child,” she said.
Greene County Director of Schools David McLain said that signature on the paperwork is binding and that she knew what she was giving up when she signed. “The choice they had on the paper said no prom, so they signed it knowing no prom. That’s just the rules,” he said.
McLain said he sees the program as a blessing, allowing children to continue education under more flexible circumstances, and for that reason, he said there need to be stipulations since CHOICES students don’t need as many credits as students continuing their education on campuses across the district.
“All high school students would do it. I don’t want to say all, but if you could still play athletics and go to the prom, they would. There have to be some guidelines in place,” he said.
While the policy clearly says “no prom,” it doesn’t specify the possibility of being someone else’s date. Caleb Franklin found out the answer to that question the day he tried to buy the tickets for him and Kandace in mid-March.
“Kandace ran out crying, she was super upset,” Franklin said. “I tried to ask if I take her as a plus one, can she go? They said no. I asked if anything would make it possible for her to go, and they said no. You can bring them from anywhere. They can be any age and come to our prom, but they won’t even let one of their students go. It’s not like we didn’t want to buy the tickets. We just want to go to prom.”
It’s a policy McLain said has been in place for nearly two decades since the program was initiated. He said he has not received a complaint from Wilhoit directly regarding this matter, nor has he received complaints regarding a situation similar to this from previous CHOICES students.
Kandace said the policy is outdated, unfair and needs to be changed.
“I want to be able to be there with my class, my graduating class. I get to walk across the stage with them, but I can’t go to prom with them. It’s just something I don’t understand, and it hurts my feelings kind of. I feel like they’re punishing me for being pregnant, that I got pregnant in high school,” she said.
McLain said it’s not a punishment, just the rules. He told News Channel 11 that while prom is out of the question, walking the stage with everyone else is still the goal. He said graduation is a right and prom is just a reward.
“I just think walking the stage is a little bit different, that’s what you work for from the time you’re in kindergarten,” McLain said.
Kandace doesn’t agree with his line of thinking. “If we’re able to graduate with the rest of our class, we should be able to go to prom with the rest of our class,” she said.
She said had she known she would miss out on prom, she would’ve stayed enrolled in South Greene. Her son is now three months old, and she continues her work towards her diploma but is saddened when she looks in her closet at the dress and shoes she had already purchased for the big night.
An online petition was started to bring attention to the matter, but at this time, McLain said Wilhoit will not be attending prom.
If Kandace Wilhoit can’t go, Caleb Franklin said he won’t either and instead they will still take photos in their attire to remember what could’ve been.
She hopes her story acts as a warning to others considering the program and possibly even brings about change to the current policy in place.