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Student earns high school diploma with help of new FINISH program

posted Jun 27, 2016, 12:03 PM by
When Aaliyah Smith walked into Cleveland County Schools Central Services, she had a newspaper in her hand, her grandmother by her side, and a nervous feeling about the unknown.

But she had come with one goal in mind — and with it, one question.

“Can someone help me graduate?”

Smith was 18 and a senior at Crest High School when she dropped out to start working a few years ago.

“I wasn’t really interested in school at the time,” she said. “I felt like the workforce had more value.”

She had been working full-time at Family Dollar for over a year and had quickly moved up in the company to assistant manager when she realized she needed a high school diploma for any further promotions.

When her grandmother read a newspaper article about another student who had gone back to finish their degree through CCS’ new FINISH program, she immediately started to convince Smith to try it.

A week later, the pair took the next step and showed up at Central Services, and Smith was on her way to graduation.

“I was nervous,” she said. “I didn’t know what the outcome would be.”

Smith started the program in February and had five courses left before she could obtain her diploma — and she had only a short period to complete them. She had to finish before she turned 21 on July 3, when she would age out and be ineligible for enrollment.

Smith is the 6th out of 7 students expected to graduate from the program this year. While most students take 4 or fewer classes per semester, Smith managed to complete her last five courses within one semester — an exception to the norm and no easy feat, according to Jane Blake and Karen Martin, her FINISH coaches.

With the tight deadline and difficulty of balancing school and a full-time job, Smith’s journey was not without its obstacles. Though the program is online, Smith would often come in before work or on her days off to seek help from her coaches.

“The best part about the program was actually having help to get through it,” Smith said. “If you’re struggling with something, they actually talk through it with you and help you.”

Blake said Smith had come a long way from the girl with the “deer in the headlights” look on her face from when they first met. She was now more confident in herself, pushed herself harder, and had a better attitude.

“It’s been different working with her because of her maturity level, having already experienced the workforce,” Martin said. “We are just extremely proud of her.”

Smith hopes to use her diploma and work experience as an assistant manager to continue up the ladder for a big corporation in the future — a dream she is now closer to because of the Finish program, her determination, and her support system.

“If I had it to do over again, I would have stayed in school,” Smith said. “For a better position and better pay, you have to have your high school diploma.”

But for those like her who want to graduate, her advice is never to give up, even if it means asking for help.

“Stay to it,” she said. “No matter how hard it is.”

About the FINISH Program

The program began in the fall when Dr. Anita Ware, director of secondary education, and others started examining attendance data. They decided to create a program that targeted students who had stopped going to school and were within a few credits of graduating.

The program reaches out to students who were referred by their high schools, enrolls them in a blended high school custom program, and provides them with help from retired educators as FINISH coaches. It kicked into gear during the 2016 spring semester.

Dr. Ware said the realistic goal of the program was to help 5-10 kids graduate each year. She said the best part of the program is the flexibility it allows in getting creative and customizing it to each student. Since the students in the program may have other responsibilities like work or kids, the program gives them a way to do it all without having to fit into the traditional high school mold.

Though it is an online program, students can text, call, or visit their coaches when they want help. The district provides a Google Chromebook for each student, along with coaches to help them.

“There is nothing more powerful than having an advocate who supports and encourages you in the process and never gives up, and that is exactly what Jane Blake and Karen Martin have done for these students," Dr. Ware said.

Dr. Ware said Smith exemplifies the kind of student the program was made for — someone who needed a nontraditional high school setting, realized the value of a high school diploma, and was willing to do the work it took to graduate.

"We are proud of her," she said. "It takes a lot of courage once you're out of the high school environment to step up and meet that goal, so she is very impressive."

Students under the age of 21 who are interested in the FINISH program should contact Dr. Anita Ware at 704-476-8075. Students over the age of 21 who are interested in finishing their high school diploma should contact Dan McKay at 704-480-5414 extension #103.