Owensboro Public Schools’ Gateway Academy graduated 25 students Wednesday night at the Owensboro Middle School North campus. Gateway Academy has served as an option for students who have faced struggles and challenges in their high school years.
When 18-year-old Dasia Carson accepted her diploma Wednesday, she did so knowing that, if not for the existence of Gateway Academy, she would probably be years behind where she currently is on her life plan.
Carson, who attended Gateway her sophomore year, and returned for her senior year, said she is grateful to the school for providing the environment she needed to help her achieve her goals.
“It was good for me — I wasn’t doing well at OHS,” she said. “It’s a smaller school, so it’s easier to get stuff done, especially when you’re behind in credits.”
Carson, who has a nine-month-old son named Kyrie, said she wants people to know that Gateway is “not just a school for bad kids.”
“It’s an actual alternative school, and it’s a really good school,” she said.
Carson is particularly grateful to Gateway Academy Principal Kevin Thompson, who also serves as director of the alternative school.
“He’s always pushing you to do better,” she said.
Without Thompson, the young mother, who lists physics as her favorite subject to study at Gateway, said she “would have dropped out and maybe just have gotten a GED.” Instead, Carson plans on enrolling at OCTC and pursuing a career as a registered nurse.
Thompson embraces the fact that Gateway helps students like Carson to learn to thrive in an alternative setting and be successful.
“I am very proud of the graduates,” Thompson said. “While dealing with many outside challenges and hurdles, they were able to earn their diploma by staying focused and being persistent. Earning their diploma gives them a sense of accomplishment.”
Next school year, Thompson will be inspiring and motivating students in the same way, but in a different location. OPS is transitioning Gateway into Emerson Academy. The school will be relocating (hopefully by the end of the year) to the former central office building on West 11th Street. That location was previously the home of Emerson school, and the new name is an attempt to better connect the alternative school with district tradition.
“We are currently developing a pilot work study and mentor program — EARN (Emerson Academy Resiliency Network) for our students that will focus on life skills, such as career preparation, budgeting, financial responsibility, applying for jobs and housing, time management and communication,” Thompson said.
OPS Superintendent Nick Brake said EARN is a multi-faceted program that offers a lot of benefits to the multiple barriers students face.
“It is a work-study model with a mentoring component,” Brake said. “It’s got a lot of promise.”
Rosemary Conder, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Ohio Valley, said that she is part of a team that wrote a community benefits grant to Owensboro Health. Conder said Owensboro Health seeks out projects that are collaborative in nature and involve different businesses or community members working together. Initially, CASA was working with Foust Elementary and Gateway High School in doing trauma-informed lessons.
Conder said they soon discovered that Gateway students were struggling with truancy, absenteeism and just showing up to school in general.
That’s when she said the group began asking themselves questions in order to better impact the students in question.
“How can we impact those 35 students?” Conder said. “How do we get them to come to school? How can we help them move toward a positive adult life if they don’t show up? What if we paid them?”
Part of the collaboration on this project includes Independence Bank setting up an account for each student in EARN, with Care for Children as the administrator. This account will be something the students can see grow every day that they show up to school. Conder said students cannot add to or take away money from their accounts until graduation, and the money that they’ve earned is theirs. Students will also be offered daily incentives on occasion such as gift cards for food and other items.
Conder said Thompson truly took the idea to heart.
“We don’t understand the impact of a little bit of money and the support that goes with it,” Thompson said.
“We’re thinking maybe 10 students that are on a path toward graduation, but maybe need a little support and encouragement,” Conder said. “They will be selected and there will be a curriculum, a criteria and mentorship. So each of these kids will be paired with an adult mentor and they will learn financial literacy, competency and life skills. A lot of these kids are missing the soft skills — how to interview, how to make a budget and how to live in the real world.”
Conder said the hope is to set these students on the path of going to a two-year or four-year college or at least learn a trade.
“It’s not that these are bad kids, they’ve just had some really tough breaks,” Conder said. “It was obvious — they were intelligent — they want a better life. They want to graduate. They haven’t lost complete hope, but they have been beaten down their whole life. It is going to be such an exciting program.”