The graduation ceremony took place Friday night, Dec. 9, at the Hillsborough High School auditorium. A graduation in December may seem unusual. But this new school is all about taking a different approach with students who need just that.
Graduate Shanqueia Holley left Middleton High School because she was fed up. “I had problems with students in the classrooms,” said Holley, “and the teachers wouldn't enforce them. Despite my size, I was bullied. Bullied all the time.”
Two credits short of a diploma, Holley tried night school, but her classes were canceled due to low enrollment, she said. A single mother of an infant boy, Holley felt more and more isolated as people she once called friends told her she was going to end up a welfare mom.
Holley's mother then enrolled her at Seminole Heights Charter, an alternative school opened in August 2010 reserved for students, ages 16 to 21, who have dropped out of high school or are in danger of dropping out.
Holley, 20, said she was struck by the difference immediately. “It was more of a still and serene surrounding that I was in,” she recalled. “You can just free your mind. You can think more. You don't feel all that limited when you're there. And the teachers are always there for you. They're always so supportive.”
Principal Bobby Smith's explanation of Seminole Heights Charter's approach tallies with Holley's impressions. ”It's a very low-drama atmosphere,” he said. “The climate and culture that we try to establish is geared towards self-motivated learning.”
Smith added that the school operates on a 210-day calendar, with one month off in the summer. “By giving students that longer school year, we give them more opportunity to get more exposure to the curriculum. We're trying to give them more flexibility, because the majority of our students come to us behind in their graduation credits.”
Flexibility is the core of the school's approach. Students can choose between morning, afternoon or evening sessions, the better to accommodate those with jobs. Each of the 10,000-square-foot school's classrooms provides a computer for every student, since the majority of the course work is online.
“It's mastery driven,” said Smith. “The students can actually complete their course work and graduation requirements at any time during the school year.” And so the school has two graduation ceremonies per school year, in December and June.
At the graduation ceremony, Holley was chosen to address her 14 fellow graduates. She spoke of how Seminole Heights Charter, and her 19-month-old son Malachi inspired her achieve her high school diploma, and plan the next phase of her life. Holley said she plans to enroll at Hillsborough Community College and is considering studying medicine. “I like helping people,” she said. "I'm a people person.”
The ceremony's keynote speaker was Dr. Walter L. Smith, Tampa native and former president of Florida A&M University. In recollecting his childhood and professional career — which included developing the technical education curriculum for NASA's Saturn 5 program, and serving as provost for Hillsborough Community College — he interspersed inspirational anecdotes to the graduates seated before him.
“Knowledge is power,” he told the students. “And education is the key to unlocking that power.”