Jesus Benitez made some mistakes. At 17, he dropped out of high school as a senior when he became a father to Mason, now 6. He had otherwise mostly stayed out of trouble, but he realized that earning $200 as a cashier at a store near his home in the Bronx offered no real future for him or his son, for whom he is the primary caretaker.
"I always worked in a kitchen, and I was tired of it," said Benitez. "The most I thought about was doing better working in a hotel."
But now the 23-year-old son of a Mexican immigrant single mom is hoping to graduate in December with an associate's degree in philosophy, and transfer to a bachelor's program in one of New York's public colleges. He also works as a counselor in a mentoring program helping students like him stay in school.
Most importantly, he said the emotional detachment he felt from his son a few years ago has been replaced with deep engagement, and the pair often go on walks and compare notes on what they're learning in school.
"I prepare little topics on philosophy for us to talk about," he said.
To some people, a transformation like Benitez's may seem too good to be true. But his circumstances as a single father have become more common in the past few decades. The number of households headed by single parents has increased dramatically in the past half-century, fourfold for single moms and ninefold for single dads, for a total of more than 4.5 million households headed by single parents around the country.