Never too late: At 69, Ms. Betty is ready to graduate from high school

The Philadelphia native is earning her degree as part of the city’s re-engagement program.

Betty Williams poses for a photo at her prom.

Betty Williams poses for a photo at her prom. (Courtesy of the School District of Philadelphia)

“It’s never too late to graduate” sounds a bit cliché — but for 69-year-old Betty Williams, that dream is one step closer to becoming a reality.

After more than five decades, the North Philly native will walk across the stage and receive her high school diploma with her fellow classmates.

Williams attended the School District of Philadelphia’s adult diploma program at One Bright Ray Mansion as a part of the Re-Engagement Center.

It took more than three terms and about a year and a half to complete the coursework.

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Now, she is one step closer to graduating and walking across the stage — a day she never thought would arrive.

“I never thought about it, because it never happened, so when it came to me, I was like this really happened to me?” Williams said.

Betty Williams poses for a photo
Betty Williams poses for a photo at her prom. (Courtesy of School District of Philadelphia)

The district says this year there were 290 adult graduates from the EOP and Adult Diploma programs.

The average age of students graduating from the program is 33 years old, while the youngest is 18.

Williams ranks as the oldest student to graduate from the district at 69.

“It’s been so amazing and so unbelievable,” said Williams.

She admitted that the journey was long and filled with challenges, from difficult classes to hard times — but it was worth it. “School really has changed, especially with algebra, I wasn’t really good at math,” Williams said.

But despite those obstacles, she was able to stay focused.

“You know how you’re concentrating on what you’re doing, and you block everybody out, that’s what I was doing,” she said.

Shining bright like a diamond

Williams said some of the best parts of her experience went beyond the classroom: One of her many highlights this past year was dressing up for prom.

“I wore a tuxedo, and I had a rhinestone hairpiece and a rhinestone necklace with a rhinestone little round bag,” said Williams.

Her family surprised her with a pre-prom party filled with balloons and music.

Her daughter, Tasawa Williams, who served as her mom’s prom date, made it extra special. Betty Williams said she could hear her favorite song by Rihanna, “Diamond,” playing.

Tasawa Williams, left, gives her mother Betty Williams, right, a kiss on the cheek
Tasawa Williams, left, gives her mother Betty Williams, right, a kiss on the cheek as they get ready to go to Betty Williams’ prom. (Courtesy of School District of Philadelphia)

It’s a moment she won’t forget.

“My daughter said don’t come downstairs until you hear the song come on,” Williams said.  And it was her song, “Shine like a diamond.”

The excitement of dancing at her very own prom was well worth the wait.

A tough decision

Williams can share the fun and excitement she has now about school, but 51 years ago her memories of high school weren’t so sweet.

At the age of 13, Williams said she became pregnant while a sophomore at Kensington High School. It was then she had to make a tough decision and high school no longer seemed like an option for the new mom.

She dropped out of school. “I think I was embarrassed, and I didn’t want to go to school with a big belly,” she said.

She tried to return and continue her education, but says she became pregnant again.

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With two children to care for, she said she did what she felt any responsible mother would do: She went to work.

“I started working, I got a job so I can take care of them. I wasn’t going to leave them with my mom. That wasn’t her responsibility, that was mine, I did that,” said Williams.

Though she says ultimately reaching this day was tough, Williams says she worked hard to provide for her kids and the proof is in their current success.

“I took care of my responsibilities, they grew up to be very nice people…they are my heroes,” Williams said.

With one son studying to be a lawyer and one daughter working in a high-profile position in IT, both graduated high school and went on to college.

Their academic achievements, explained Williams, motivated her to go back to school.

They are her biggest cheerleaders, Williams said: “They (are) happy, they (are) like go ahead mom go get it!”

Tasawa Williams, left, poses for a photo with her mom, Betty Williams
Tasawa Williams (left) poses for a photo with her mom, Betty Williams, at Betty’s prom. (Courtesy of the School District of Philadelphia)

Data from the school district shows the four-year graduation rate for students was at 78% for the 2021-2022 school year. Those numbers dropped to 49% for students in adult education according to the Alternative Education Progress Reports (AEPR).

Which is why for Williams, returning to school and earning her high school diploma was so important.  She says she hopes her journey will inspire others.

“Finish your dream, finish your journey. If you don’t have your high school diploma, if you want it, if that was a dream of yours, go get it!”

Williams’ story and ability to motivate others is the reason the school asked her to speak at the graduation ceremony Friday.

“I wasn’t supposed to graduate back then…I was supposed to do it just like how it’s being done right now! I thank God for that, because I prayed for it, and he gave me everything I asked him for. It’s been amazing!” said Williams.

Williams announced that she was also accepted into community college and looks forward to starting the next chapter towards earning a college degree.

But first, her graduation ceremony will take place at Temple University Center for Performing Arts at 9:30 a.m.

Those interested can apply for Philadelphia’s re-engagement program online.

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