No holding back CCAC grad now

Debra Erdley
| Thursday, May 15, 2014, 11:18 p.m.

Cynthia Edmond greets well-wishers with a firm handshake and a 1,000-watt smile.

It's been a long, uphill walk for the Penn Hills woman. But Edmond could almost see the top of the hill as she modeled her cap and gown, preparing for commencement on Thursday at the Community College of Allegheny County, where she was to pick up two associate degrees — one in business management and one in general studies.

Like most community colleges, CCAC — where the average student is 28 — had many adults among the 503 graduates. Few knew the route Edmond, 54, navigated to get to the stage.

Slow to learn and plagued by seizures as a child, Edmond said she was placed in special ed classes in Pittsburgh's public schools in the 1960s and remained there until graduation in 1979.

“When I was younger, people said I'd never amount to anything or be anything,” Edmond said.

Katy Neas, senior vice president for government relations for Easter Seals, said such stories were common in the 1960s and '70s before the law required that disabled children be given access to a free and appropriate public education.

“We often talk of kids with disabilities that were educated in the boiler room. Often, kids with disabilities were all lumped together, and it was assumed that they couldn't learn,” Neas said.

A 2000 report by the National Council on Disability estimated 3.5 million children with varying levels of disability were shunted into separate classrooms prior to the adoption of the federal Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975.

“There was little accommodation to allow them to succeed at that time. You look back and say ‘why didn't we know better?' But we didn't have the evidence-based education we have now,” said Bill East, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

Although some felt she couldn't learn, Edmond said her late mother, Joan Marie Burchette, worked relentlessly to ensure her eldest daughter learned to read.

“She fought for me,” Edmond said.

Edmond, who never married, graduated from Peabody High School, then found work as a nursing assistant. She said she loved helping people, but health problems and recurring bouts of depression sidelined her from the workforce in 2003.

Six years later, confident she still had something to give, Edmond enrolled in the community college.

Placement tests determined her reading and spelling skills were up to par, but her math was at sixth-grade level and her writing skills were poor.

“I took three developmental courses for my first semester, and from then on, I worked hard to graduate. I took algebra four times to pass. They usually only let you take it three times, but I was determined to pass it, so I went to the dean's office. I wanted an opportunity to pass it, and I did — with a C,” she said, adding that her algebra professor, Raymond Weaver, made all the difference.

Edmond said he was among many professors and tutors who helped her.

As she progressed, her grades improved. She made the dean's list twice, was the recipient of the school's NAACP scholarship in 2012 and was inducted into the Phi Theta Kappa and Psi Beta honor societies.

“Help is there, if you ask for it,” she said. “I prayed, and God sent me people who helped me.”

Pamela Nichols, director of job placement and career services at CCAC's Boyce campus said Edmond was among the most reliable student volunteers she has ever known.

“I've seen her walking from the bus stop, bundled up, in the worst, bitter-cold weather, determined to get here and get to class. I'm so proud of her,” Nichols said.

Edmond said she's grateful she got through school, even if it took her four years. She is working part-time as a checkout clerk in a Penn Hills grocery store, sending out resumes for office work and is determined to learn to drive.

“She will keep at it, and she will do it,” Nichols said.

Asked what she has learned along the way, Edmond paused for a moment.

“Never give up. Just never give up,” she said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or

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