Sunday, June 10, 2012
Christina Nuckols: The power of second chances
- School grades: a view from the classroom
- Unpleasant answers about education
- Rescuing Virginia's failing schools
- Cokie Roberts' cure for D.C. incivility
- Column archive
Christina Nuckols grew up in the Shenandoah Valley and worked at several newspapers in western Virginia, including The Roanoke Times, before moving to Richmond to cover state government and politics. After 14 years at the state Capitol, she returned to Roanoke in 2011 to become the editorial page editor. christina. firstname.lastname@example.org | 981-3377
From the RoundTable blog
There's a big difference between public perception and the reality of Forest Park Academy.
"The perception is this is the school for bad students," said Eric Anderson, principal of Roanoke's alternative program for over-age students and those at risk of dropping out.
The reality was on display Tuesday evening in the City Market Building's Charter Hall. Bad students? Some of the 102 graduates lined up in their blue and purple robes probably met that description at some point. But today they are human testimonials to the power of second chances. Many are the first in their families to graduate. Every one of them is a fighter.
Eighteen-year-old Kayla Cabe-Lewis recalled the Friday morning of her sophomore year when she learned she was pregnant. She dropped out, promising herself that she would later obtain a General Equivalency Diploma. But she changed her mind after the birth of her son Adarius, now 2, who clutched her hand at Tuesday's ceremony.
"I decided I didn't want just good enough," Cabe-Lewis said. "Nobody told me that it would be easy. They said it would be worth it."
She graduated with honors and a 3.5 grade point average and plans to attend Virginia Western Community College in pursuit of a career in nursing.
Graduates and their families could barely contain their enthusiasm. Actually, they didn't even try. Every young man and woman striding across the stage was welcomed with high-decibel shrieks. One man stood in the center aisle and yelled "Whoo! That's my baby!" Graduate Emily Starkey twice darted out of the line of dignitaries waiting to shake her hand to wave Miss America style at her admiring audience.
It's easy to understand why Superintendent Rita Bishop and other school leaders consider Forest Park's closing ceremony the highlight of every June since the academy opened four years ago.
"I love these kids," Bishop said later. "The needier they are, the more I love them."
She showed that deep affection by telling graduates a story she had never previously shared in public about her mother, a concert pianist. Mary Rich grew up on a wheat farm in Idaho. She showed talent at the piano, but when her teacher moved away, her parents advised her to find another passion. Instead, she wrote letters to newspapers in surrounding communities and even traveled to the nearest town to post signs seeking a new instructor. The woman who responded drove for miles to teach Rich lessons and later chauffeured her to San Francisco for her concert debut.
"There are lots of people, when they know you need help, they will help you," Bishop told the graduates. She counseled them to accept that help "and then remember to respond to someone else's ad."
Forest Park Academy has played a key role in boosting Roanoke's on-time graduation rate, which has risen from 67 percent to 76 percent over the past three years. The school has helped 461 young men and women graduate, and the total will reach 487 later this summer.
A majority of last week's graduates signaled they plan to attend a two- or four-year college. Others plan to enter the military or the workforce. As I watched them hugging their teachers and smiling for the cameras, I couldn't dispel a twinge of anxiety as they step into a world of escalating tuition costs, tours of duty in dangerous places and a job market that's scary even for students who glided through high school without a misstep.
Some of them will certainly face new tribulations in the years ahead, but school board Chairman David Carson isn't being a Pollyanna when he says that Forest Park is about hope.
"I do not think there are any hungrier high school graduates in the country," he said.
Anderson, the academy's principal, feels the same way.
"Many people told you you couldn't, but guess what you did?" he asked the graduates. "You looked them in the eye and said, 'Yes I can.' I'm proud you made it this far, but I look forward to your future. If any of you all get rich, I want you to remember me."
If you didn't make it on Tuesday, you've missed what he calls "the best celebration in town." But if you still think Forest Park is for bad students, or if you're just feeling down about the economy and the future, you should mark the date on your calendar for next year. It's a real tear-jerker, but I promise you'll walk out with a smile.
Nuckols is editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times.