In a rundown Appalachian town, Deborah Hicks once dreamed of an education that would take her far away from the life she knew. She was a precocious little girl who was angry about the harsh poverty that surrounded her.
Despite not receiving a strong education at her local public school, she had the grit and determination that would eventually get her out. Hicks studied to become a teacher, and when she got her degree, she set out to help girls who grew up as she did.
In her beautiful and tragic book, The Road Out: A Teacher's Odyssey in Poor America, Hicks chronicles this journey.
After taking a teaching job in Cincinnati at a local university, she stumbled upon a severely poor community that used to be a "haven for southern white migrants from Appalachia in the postwar decades."
It was in the early 2000s and as she drove into the neighborhood, she knew this is where she needed to teach.
The predominately white community, Hicks said in an interview, had the feeling of "a ghetto." Buildings were boarded up, houses were falling apart, and people on the street corners were passing drugs back and forth. The poverty, she said, "was striking."
Hicks started teaching and was deeply impacted by one little girl in particular. Born with drugs in her system, Blair was very small for her age and struggled with the stress of a tumultous home life.
Despite this, Hicks said, the nine-year-old's eyes expressed "toughness, spirit, and most of all, precociousness."
Right away, she knew that "unless someone stepped in and supported Blair, she was going to have problems." There was simply too much working against her.
Hicks created an afterschool and summer school class for Blair and other young girls. The class focused on literature and storytelling, but went far beyond the words the girls read on the page. The girls opened up about their lives and forged lasting relationships with each other, and their teacher.
In The Road Out, Hicks writes about these early years in the classroom and then segues into her return to the community when the girls turned 16.
When she revisited them, she said, they each still wanted to be successful in school but just weren't getting the education they needed. Sadly, Blair and a few other girls ended up dropping out before they ever got their high school diploma.
What caused the girls to dropout, Hicks said, had to do with the stress outside of school and the schools themselves.
"In the poorest schools in America," Hicks passionately said, "there just isn't the opportunity and the level of engaged teaching and counseling that students really need to attach themselves to school."
Another issue was the standardized tests they had to take. "Speaking as a teacher, working on the ground with these students, the tests actually made things worse," she said.
"The teachers," Hicks said, "felt they had to focus on the test and in the end, it really hurt the students."
Although Blair didn't graduate, she's still determined to get her diploma, as are the other girls. What was striking, Hicks said, was they did not want to give up.
If girls like Blair are to get the education they need and deserve, Hicks said, it must start at the top.
She said: "Addressing the glaring and extreme needs of poor and working class kids so they can have the same opportunity of privileged kids has to become a national priority."