Lawrence student who almost dropped out of high school finds success through College and Career Academy

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Gracyn Garrett, 18, poses at the Lawrence College and Career Center on July 25, 2021. Garrett was one of the first students to enroll in the College and Career Academy, which she credits for getting her back on the path to earn her high school diploma.

With just a few school credits to her name as she entered her senior year of high school, Gracyn Garrett was ready to quit.

After bad experiences at Lawrence High School and Lawrence Virtual School, Garrett felt she had no other options. So last summer, she asked the school district for paperwork to officially drop out of high school.

“I was at my breaking point,” Garrett recently told the Journal-World. “That was the end of the line for me and I didn’t feel like I had any more chances to get my diploma.”

But before she could finish the paperwork, district administrator Bill DeWitt approached her with the prospect of one last opportunity. The school district was about to launch a new program, of which he was the principal, that focuses on providing high school students with their core classes in an alternative setting, while also focusing on courses that prepare them for a specific career.

Garrett, who is now 18, was one of the first students to enroll in the College and Career Academy, an alternative high school program in Lawrence that launched during the 2020-21 school year. Garrett said she didn’t know what to expect, but gave it a shot.

Now, a year later, she’s just a little more than a month away from earning her high school diploma and starting a career in nursing, she said.

Garrett isn’t alone. DeWitt, who recently provided a first-year update to the school board, said the program has enrolled 67 students since launching, and currently 64 of them, about 94%, are on the path to earn their diploma.

Falling behind

Garrett’s high school journey began at LHS when she was a freshman. She said she had just moved back to Lawrence from Michigan, where she attended all of her middle school years, and did not have many friends.

During that time, she said she fell in with the wrong crowd and began falling behind in her classes, she said.

Eventually, after a falling out with some of those friends, she no longer felt safe at the school. Garrett said she felt bullied and also dealt with mental health struggles. She said LHS worked well to address mental health issues, but couldn’t do much about the bullying.

That led her to stop showing up at LHS, she said.

To leave that environment and get back on track in her education, Garrett said she began taking courses through the Lawrence Virtual School. That allowed her to take classes from home.

However, she said she realized she needed more in-person support for her education, which the virtual school did not provide. She only lasted a semester in the program.

“Nothing really changed, and I didn’t get the experiences I needed,” she said. “I wasn’t paying attention and I didn’t know how to function.”

After that semester, Garrett had one year of school left, but only four credits to her name. She was well off from what she needed to graduate in Lawrence, which requires students to earn 23 high school credits to earn their diploma.

At the time, it seemed too daunting, and Garrett was ready to give up. She said she also felt like she had no future, which led to a lack of motivation to do anything.

That’s not uncommon, DeWitt recently told the Lawrence school board. He said it’s not hard for students to fall behind, as there are many different factors that could contribute to it.

That’s where the academy comes in, he said.

The academy

The College and Career Academy offers full day school at the Lawrence College and Career Center, 2910 Haskell Ave., to Lawrence High School and Free State High School students who have completed at least their first year at those schools.

DeWitt said the program wants the students to at least try traditional high school first. But if it doesn’t work out, they may apply for the academy.

Along with core education requirements, the academy provides students with courses focused on career preparation in several fields, such as culinary arts, computer technology, automotive repair and construction, among others. It also provides daily social-emotional services.

“It’s not an easier path, but a path that is necessary for some students,” he said of the program.

photo by: Meeting screenshot/Lawrence school board

Bill DeWitt, principal for Lawrence’s College and Career Academy, speaks to the school board on Monday, July 12, 2021.

While the program is available, DeWitt also said it likely won’t become too large of a program. He said the target number of students at a time is about 120 students. Otherwise, a large student population at the academy would likely mean the district would need to reevaluate LHS and Free State, he said.

Additionally, a smaller program is likely more helpful to the students participating, such as Garrett. She said she now knows everyone in her school by name. She also said when she had issues arise, she felt heard by the administrators and often had them addressed within a day.

“It was never as stressful for me as high school was before this school,” she said.

Other students in the program also explained to the school board how the program helped them. Isaac Riffel, who is expected to graduate after the upcoming fall semester, said he felt the traditional high school model made him feel like “only a number” but the academy allowed him to build a relationship with faculty and counselors.

Similarly, Michael Douglas Weinbrenner, who will be a junior this fall, said his experience at Free State made him feel like a “face in the crowd.” He said the academy allowed him to connect to a community, helping him academically and socially.

Garrett said she is also adamant the academy is not the stereotype some may believe an alternative school is. She said the students there are not “bad kids” and the program sets high but achievable expectations for the students.

She said the school wants the students to succeed and it works to provide them with the support they need to get there.

“If LHS, Free State and LVS might not have worked out for somebody, this one might,” she said.

The Lawrence College and Career Center, 2910 Haskell Ave.

‘Biggest cheerleader’

Garrett is on the path to earn her certification to become a certified nursing assistant, or CNA. She is also working toward a child development associate certification, she said.

With that success now within reach, Garrett said she struggles to find words that accurately portray just how thankful she is. She said she is now the “biggest cheerleader” for the program.

“This school is amazing and I can’t praise it enough,” Garrett said. “I just love it.”

Gracyn’s mother, Terri Garrett, feels the same way. During the recent school board meeting, she told the board her daughter was in physical danger from the bullying at LHS and the alternative program “literally and figuratively” saved her life by providing her a new path to succeed.

“I’m very pleased (Gracyn) looks forward to her future now,” she said. “Her life changed and I couldn’t be more proud of her or more thankful to Mr. DeWitt and the College and Career Academy.”

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