Monday, Dec. 24, 2012 | 2 a.m.
When Aarik and Aalik Poeling were in high school, their future could’ve ended at any moment.
The 18-year-old identical twins lived lives of fast money and drugs. Aalik Poeling fell into the clutches of drugs at 14 years old and became addicted to methamphetamine. He’d go to school for a week, maybe a month, until he either was suspended or stopped going because he couldn’t get high when he wanted.
He ran with a gang — a clique of friends. He stole, sold drugs and ripped people off; he was shot at, watched friends die from overdose and saw another go blind after he was shot in the face with a shotgun.
“I had a lot of friends die over stupid stuff,” Aalik Poeling said.
Aarik Poeling meanwhile bounced in and out of the juvenile detention center and was expelled from four schools. He was caught drinking on the Strip and in high school, got into fights and was addicted to drugs. His latest conviction sent him to jail on two counts of grand larceny and a count of petty larceny.
He was, he said, one of “those people” who got asked, “Oh, are you ever going to quit doing drugs?” And Aarik Poeling would answer: “Hell no, nope, no way. Never.”
Both had illusions of “‘Scarface’ grandeur.” They’d rise through the ranks of the notorious, making fast money and living extravagantly with pretty women at their beck and call.
But movies such as “Scarface” all end the same way — with death.
“It was a very real possibility; we didn’t mess with the nicest people around,” Aarik Poeling said. “I was getting sick of guns getting pulled out, getting jacked.”
But that was their past. None of that matters now at Desert Rose Adult High School.
Here at the school, with a rising phoenix adorning the outer wall, they are just two of 4,600 students looking for a second chance at education.
“We just want to get our education,” Aalik Poeling said. “It helps me. I come here, I feel welcome and I feel good. It’s a place that I could be safe and chill and stress-free. I have anxiety, but I don’t get it at school, and I don’t get it at home.”
The people they were stand in stark contrast to who they are now.
More than 20,000 people have enrolled at Clark County School District adult high schools this year. They come as 87-year-olds looking to prove they can earn their diploma and as 19-year-old dropouts.
Robert Henry, CCSD’s director of adult education, said the average age a student returns to school is 24.5 years old. The primary reason many return is they can’t find work without a General Educational Development certificate or a high school diploma.
The schools provide students a chance to earn either. They also offer trade classes such as auto mechanics and welding to help them find employment.
Classes are organized more like tutoring sessions than lectures because each student has a different level of education. Classes are competency-based, meaning once students prove they understand the material, they earn the credits. Desert Rose principal Sandra Ransel said that means a student could graduate in a month or take years.
Desert Rose English instructor Roy Addington teaches his class with a dry wit and one-on-one tutor sessions. Each student is given a syllabus and expected to work on assignments during class. Meanwhile Addington will sit down individually with each student to make sure the material is understood.
The majority of his students are between 17 and 20 years old. Some were underachievers in high school; others dropped out because they became pregnant. Either way, it doesn’t matter to Addington. His goal is make sure they can write a three-paragraph paper with an introduction, a body and a conclusion.
“I love this format; it’s very challenging,” Addington said. “Not just for them but for me.”
Walking around the spacious campus of Desert Rose, Aarik and Aalik Poeling can’t seem to go 100 feet without hugging a girl or slapping hands with a friend.
“Every girl wants them,” said a school secretary with a roll of her eyes. “Or at least that’s what they think.”
The twins are considered the popular kids. They are co-student council presidents, led the school through morning announcements for a couple of months and organized dances. They’re involved in almost everything, and everyone seems to know them.
Both enrolled in August at Desert Rose. Several months prior, they had hit rock bottom and had epiphanies.
Aarik Poeling said his moment occurred at the juvenile detention center. He watched as a kid coming down from a high was fighting with the guards, begging for drugs.
“I looked at him and I was like, 'I don’t want to end up like that,'” Aarik Poeling said.
Meanwhile Aalik Poeling said he couldn’t explain why he changed. He just looked at where his life was headed and wanted something different. Now when he thinks about his past, he’s baffled.
“I don’t know why we did those things,” Aalik Poeling said. “In the state of mind we are in now, I try to block those memories out, and I just feel disgusted with myself. I hate to even talk about it.”
Aalik Poeling was the one who first brought up attending Desert Rose. He had heard a friend who graduated from the school and loved it. They enrolled and fell in love with the freedom and independence the school offered, as well as the lack of judgment from teachers.
Addington has the twins in his English class. He often teases Aarik Poeling, especially about his chicken-scratch handwriting. Addington says Aarik and Aalik Poeling are good students but have their share of difficulties.
“They’re both really smart and gifted when they do the work and pay attention,” Addington said.
The school mission at Desert Rose is boiled down to a simple phrase: “Educate to graduate.”
The school is designed to eliminate complications that would prevent students from graduating. It provides a nursery for parents, free bus passes for those that can’t afford transportation and classes at all hours of the day.
Henry said many students attending adult high schools come just for their GED, but administrators encourage them to strive for a diploma.
“We actually talk dollars and cents,” Henry said. “Right now U.S. Department of Labor figures indicate a (person) with a high school diploma's average annual earning power is between $6,000 to $7,000 more per year than someone with a GED.”
Henry said the adult high school system’s biggest impact is on the Las Vegas economy. It helps make adults struggling to find work more employable through education.
“What we know is educated people wind up in prison at lower rates. Studies have shown educated people have fewer social service needs; it reduces the number of people who require public assistance,” Henry said. “For all of those reasons, the community can ultimately benefit.”
Aarik Poeling’s eyes light up as he shows off the Desert Rose greenhouse. There are tomato plants, onions and squashes, a hydroponics system and a compost yard.
This is Aarik Poeling’s favorite place on campus. He said he has helped plant and build a lot of the plants and structures around the greenhouse. Aalik Poeling said his favorite class was auto mechanics because in it he recalled the memories he had of working on cars with his father.
This is who they are now. Gone are the anger and drugs that ruled their life, and in their place are ambition and peace. They try to make it to school every week, whether they have to walk, get a ride from a neighbor or apply for a bus pass. Both say they have no desire to return to their past life.
Aarik Poeling needs 10.5 credits to graduate, and Aalik Poeling needs 12.5. Once they graduate, Aalik Poeling wants to go to College of Southern Nevada to become a diesel mechanic and then maybe join the Army. Aarik Poeling wants to join his brother at CSN and become a horticulturist or maybe a veterinarian.
Really though, Aarik Poeling has a much simpler future in mind. One that Desert Rose has put him on the path to achieve.
“My plan is just to be happy,” Aarik Poeling said. “That’s all I want.”