College bound with a scholarship in hand, the former Lucy C. Laney High School student dropped out as a senior during the 2005-06 school year. Ms. Thomas became ill, suffering pain in her legs so severe that it became difficult for her to climb stairs or even stand at times.
"My feeling in my legs would just totally leave," she recalled.
A battery of medical tests, including a spinal tap, revealed Ms. Thomas had Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer. She was given the diagnosis the day after Thanksgiving in 2005.
As she received treatments, she continued doing her schoolwork from home with a teacher making periodic visits, but she fell behind to the point where she thought it best to drop out rather than repeat a year of school.
It would have taken another year of school to catch up, and she didn't want to be in class with students younger than her.
Although her cancer is now in remission, Ms. Thomas, 20, continues to struggle, unable to find a decent job because she lacks a high school diploma.
She worked in a sporting goods store for a few months but left when she couldn't get enough hours to work. She then worked at Burger King for a short time.
Ms. Thomas, who would have been in the class of 2006, recalled what she missed by dropping out of school, such as the prom and senior trip.
Not finishing school, she said bluntly, was a bad choice.
Each dropout creates a ripple effect felt throughout a community for years to come, said Stephen Dolinger, the president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education. The Atlanta-based partnership brings together education and business leaders.
In addition to making less money and often being taxpayer burdens, dropouts tend to be less active in the community - voting and volunteering less than those who complete high school, Dr. Dolinger said.
Many people don't see dropping out as a community issue, however, instead treating education like a competition - as long as my child is doing better than yours, then all is OK, said Lynn Huntley, the president of the Southern Education Foundation. The Atlanta-based group has advocated for equality in Southern education for nearly 140 years. The result is a contest that lauds those who achieve and dismisses those who fail as if they were inherently inferior, she said.
"We have, in particular I think among those of us who are members of the middle class, great pride and appropriately so in the education achievements of our children and a preoccupation with how well those children are doing," Ms. Huntley said. "And we look and measure how well our children are doing by how poorly other children are doing."
Some economic measures show how dropouts affect a community, Dr. Dolinger said. For instance, if east central Georgia raised its graduation rates to the national average, it would gain $3.6 million annually in increased productivity. That economic component is directly tied to the fact that dropouts have an 8.5 percent unemployment rate, as compared with 5.5 percent for high school graduates, he said.
Ms. Thomas has for the moment put her education on the back burner while she continues to look for a job. Getting turned down by employer after employer, she's heard all of the excuses - they're not hiring right now, they're not accepting applications and they'll keep her rsum on file. But the results are the same - no job.
"I don't see how they just sit around and do nothing all day," she said of high school dropouts. "It makes me feel like a lazy person, when I'm not a lazy person."
Ms. Thomas, who lives at home with her parents, considered pursuing her GED, but decided against it.
"Honestly, I feel the GED is a cop out for me," she said.
"Right now I'm just trying to stay positive and praying. I'm taking it day by day," Ms. Thomas said. "If you don't have no education, you don't have nothing."
DROPOUTS IN AUGUSTA
A two-part series on the problems faced by dropouts in the CSRA, and efforts to solve the problem.
Sunday, May 27
Monday, May 28
Tuesday, May 29