Hard work pays off for late high school graduate

Cameron Walkinshaw was at home hanging out. Little more than a month earlier, his friends had graduated from Everett High School.

He had felt the sting of seeing classmates graduate June 14 at Comcast Arena.

“I had to watch my two best friends. I watched them go through the ceremony,” the 19-year-old said Thursday. “I kept thinking, ‘This is my class. That could have been me.’ ”

There he was in July, home in Everett where he lives with his grandparents. When two visitors came to the door, what started as a lazy summer day became one that changed Walkinshaws’s life.

The visitors were Joyce Stewart, an associate superintendent of the Everett School District, and Amanda Overly, Everett High’s assistant principal. Seeing them on his doorstep, Walkinshaw almost didn’t believe it.

He recognized Stewart, who had been principal at Everett’s Evergreen Middle School when he was there years ago.

Walkinshaw, who had more than a few unfinished classes and lacked enough credits to graduate in June, had planned to rescue his education through the Youth Re-Engagement Program at Everett Community College. He figured it was too late to earn a diploma from Everett High.

His visitors convinced him otherwise. They told him they knew he was bright and capable, and they were part of a team working to help students graduate.

That very day, he went to Everett’s Sequoia High School to get started on summer classes, both online and on campus.

On Aug. 21, he was one of about a dozen graduates honored at the Everett district’s summer commencement ceremony at Cascade High School. Each wore a cap and gown from his or her own school. And each had a chance to speak to the audience.

Students had until Friday to complete the 2013-2014 school year. In the Everett district, students have until age 21 to earn a diploma. Stewart expected about 20 to graduate in the district this summer.

Jeanne Willard, director of on-time graduation for the Everett district, said the number completing requirements in the summer is up this year. “We normally see about 12 to 15 at summer graduation,” she said. “A lot of adults in our system contributed to helping students make it over that hurdle. We didn’t waive requirements, but we offered more opportunities to fulfill those requirements this summer.”

In late spring, the district looked closely at transcripts not only of students who were on track, but of those “who were close — or even a reach,” Willard said.

The district put up banners about summer school on its campuses. When students needing to catch up didn’t show up for summer school, “we were making home visits,” Stewart said. “We weren’t blaming anybody. We were finding out the story and removing the barriers.”

The option of taking online classes helped, but Stewart said the real difference was that kids had personal and ongoing help from adults as they worked toward their goals.

When students fall behind, they become overwhelmed, she said. “We realize how bright they are. For many of them, they just stopped going,” Stewart said.

Students fail to earn enough credits in four years for reasons as varied as kids themselves. Cody Lee, a summer graduate from Sequoia High School, has worked nearly full-time at a restaurant since junior year. His family has weathered a divorce, and he said he helps his mother pay rent.

“The last month of school, I was so behind but they kept with me. It seemed nearly impossible, but I got all that work done,” said Lee, who will turn 19 next month.

He is especially grateful to Kelly Shepherd, Sequoia’s principal. “She was standing by my side the whole time,” he said. As the first in his family to graduate from high school, Lee said “it feels really good.” He wants to attend the Evergreen State College in Olympia this winter.

After Walkinshaw’s recent weeks of study, all-night work sessions and test-taking — the toughest course he made up was Algebra II — he plans to start at Everett Community College this fall. He is interested in robotics and computers.

One good friend who graduated in June has already left for Washington State University. Walkinshaw no longer feels left behind.

He will always remember his own high school graduation. He was nervous when he got up to speak.

“I was saying thank-you to so many people. I saw my grandparents and my mom sitting there. My mom was tearing up,” he said. “I was thanking my little sister. She’s 12, and she was on me about homework like no one else. I didn’t expect them to be as excited as they were.”

With college to come, his future is bright. There is more he wants to do.

“My dream is to help students like me out there. They need that extra push — that extra somebody,” Walkinshaw said. “Help is hope.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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