Correction: Josh Smith is the first of his three brothers to graduate high school. The article originally said Smith was the first in his family to graduate.
LORAIN — Tyler Johnson, Stephen Rice, Ben Richardson and Josh Smith were exuberant when they picked up their caps and gowns last week for Tuesday’s high school graduation.
There was good reason for their excitement. The Credit Recovery Academy graduates overcame a combination of apathy, bad behavior, homelessness and poverty to earn their diplomas.
Johnson, who came to the academy last year, overcame long odds. Johnson said his home life was dysfunctional and he fought at Elyria High School, landing him at the Stepping Stone Residential Center, a juvenile detention home for a year. He was later placed in foster care.
When Johnson turned 18 on Sept. 1, he said he was kicked out of foster care and was homeless for a couple of months before moving in with his older sister. Johnson said he considered dropping out after becoming homeless.
Johnson credits teacher Caitlin Bernardo for helping him stay. Bernardo gave him soap, toothpaste and encouragement.
“She saw I needed to keep going,” Johnson said. “She kept my head up.”
Johnson said he’s applied to several colleges and plans to major in criminal justice. Johnson wants to be a probation officer, believing he can bring a different perspective to the job.
“I’ve been on the other side,” he said.
Like Johnson, Rice’s road to graduation was also long. Rice, 20, grew up in Akron. Rice said his parents split when he was 15 and he moved in with an aunt but didn’t get along with her.
Rice said he began living on his own at 16 and did groundskeeping at Portage Country Club in Akron to pay his rent. Rice said work led him to drop out of traditional high school and Educational Classroom of Tomorrow, an online high school. Rice said there were times when he went hungry.
“Money was really tight for me. I could barely get by,” he said. “Graduation wasn’t even a thought for me then.”
Rice eventually moved to Lorain to live with an older sister and enrolled last year at the academy. Rice said the personal, hands-on attention he received from teachers allowed him to accelerate his education.
Rice said he’s considering an aviation career and has applied to a few universities. “If I can get past this step, there’s nothing that can stop me now,” he said.
While Johnson and Rice’s struggles were primarily due to circumstances, Richardson and Smith’s were due to attitude.
Richardson, 19, came to the academy in 2012 from New Beginnings Academy after attending Southview High School.
Richardson said the 2009 death of his friend Christopher Hill, a 16-year-old shot in a gang-related killing, angered him. Richardson said he didn’t want to go to school and was disrespectful to teachers, leading to his expulsion from Southview.
Richardson said he repeated the ninth grade three times until realizing he didn’t want to end up like some of his friends.
“I wanted to make it out, do good, provide for my family, so I started getting on the right track,” he said.
Richardson, who is considering a career in sports medicine or becoming a veterinary technician, said he plans to attend Lorain County Community College in the fall. Richardson said he benefited from the positive atmosphere at the academy.
“It felt like I was at home when I came to school,” he said. “That was the first time I felt like I was actually part of a high school.”
Smith, 19, said he was lazy at Admiral King High School and Lorain High School. “I thought the work that I was doing was enough to get me by,” he said.
Like Johnson, Rice and Richardson, Smith credited the supportive environment at the academy for changing his attitude. He singled out Principal Nikole Davis and Assistant Principal Sam Newsome.
“Not too many people believed in me,” said Smith, who said he will be the first of his three brothers to graduate high school. “Mr. Newsome and Miss Davis (got) me through it, kept on pushing me to keep going and that’s why I’m here.”
Davis said it’s important for administrators and teachers to show students they genuinely care about them.
“We focus on building relationships with them and building trust because they come from a culture of failure,” she said. “We want them to feel like they can succeed.”
Newsome said Johnson, Rice, Richardson and Smith epitomize the lesson that adversity can be overcome.
“Hopefully, this won’t be their last stop, and they can keep going,” he said.
Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Road to Recovery
- Designed to reduce dropouts, the Credit Recovery Academy opened in 2009.
- The ninth through 12th grade academy is located in the Lorain High School Annex at 2321 Fairless Drive.
- The academy has 239 students with 35 scheduled to graduate Tuesday.
- The academy, which has 18 staff members including 12 teachers, combines hands-on teaching and technology to help at-risk students.
- Students spend an average of two to three years at the academy. The goal is to return those who improve academically to the schools they came from, but some graduate from the academy.