- By John O’Connell, Idaho State Journal
Jaden Blackburn leads the crowd at the Pocatello High School auditorium in the Pledge of Allegiance during the New Horizon High School graduation ceremony on Friday night. Jaden is age 20 but decided to go back to high school and get her diploma.
“Kids would see the scars and pretend to cut themselves with pencils in class,” Blackburn recalled, explaining how bullying derailed her education.
Now 20 years old — and three years removed from a decision to drop out of high school — Blackburn of Pocatello has capitalized on a second chance. Friday night, she led the Pledge of Allegiance during New Horizon High School’s graduation ceremony, before finally taking home her diploma.
She finished with a 3.35 GPA and plans to study art at Idaho State University.
“I was there because I wanted to be there, not because I had to be there,” Blackburn said of her transformation from drop-out to honors student. “I cared a lot more about the work I was doing.”
And Blackburn believes she inspired a couple of her classmates to persevere and earn their diplomas.
“Whenever I heard of students talking about dropping out, I would always lecture them about it,” Blackburn said. “I think it made people realize if I could do it at my age, then they could do it.”
During middle school, Blackburn began cutting class, based on social anxiety. She went on to miss 30 consecutive days of class as a freshman at Pocatello High School. When she appeared before Juvenile Judge Bryan Murray to answer for her repeated truancy, Blackburn agreed to transfer to New Horizon, where the judge suggested the smaller class sizes and strict emphasis on attendance would be beneficial.
Things were going well until her family — her mother, Amanda, and her sister, Alexis — moved back to Utah. She quickly fell behind and got lost in her classes.
“I got a C in one class and failed the rest,” she said.
She ultimately dropped out of school early during her sophomore year, having earned a total of 14 high school credits. She said her mother was disappointed but understood her daughter’s mental health struggles. A while after she dropped out, her family moved back to East Idaho, where Blackburn started a job and enrolled in a program to earn a GED diploma.
“I didn’t feel like I was getting a whole lot out of (the GED program),” she said.
In the spring of 2017, Blackburn attended a friend’s graduation. She was supposed to have graduated that spring, as well, and being there made her regretful. The experience motivated her to ask School District 25 for permission to return to school. In short order, she was attending summer classes at New Horizon.
“I was so much older than all of them, and I was like, ‘I’m not going to know any of these kids,’” she recalled.
Yet Blackburn soon emerged as a leader at New Horizon — taking leadership classes and spending evenings working on a float for the Idaho State University Homecoming Parade. Furthermore, she came up with the concept for the school’s popular entry in the district’s Festival of Trees event, featuring creatures from Jim Henson’s 1982 movie “The Dark Crystal.” She also earned a $500 college scholarship funded by coffee sales at New Horizon.
“If New Horizon wasn’t a school, I would not be graduating today,” Blackburn said.