These days, Hannah Merritt is a 25-year-old mother of three, a nurse starting a new job in a methadone clinic, and a woman dedicating herself to being a great mom and helping people throw off the shackles of addiction.
From time to time, she takes out her Bethel Acceleration Academy diploma and displays it on her refrigerator. It’s a reminder of how close she came to being a high school dropout — and how hard she worked to forge a better path.
“It’s never far from me,” she says. “If it wasn’t for Acceleration Academy, I don’t think I would have gotten a diploma.”
Hannah was one of the first young people to graduate from the network of high school dropout re-engagement programs now operating across the nation. She was a pioneer in an innovative approach that now boasts more than 1,400 graduates, a number that grows by the month.
“A lot of people I grew up with didn’t graduate,” says Hannah, who earned her diploma in December 2015. “With this program, there’s no reason for anyone ever not to graduate. I’m just really grateful.”
Hannah grew up in Spanaway and Tacoma but first dropped out in 9th grade. “It just wasn’t for me,” she says. But then she got pregnant at age 16 and began thinking about what kind of a life she could provide.
“After I got pregnant, I thought, ‘I really need to get it together.’ ”
She tried a variety of in-person and virtual schools, cycling through five different programs before finding her way to the newly opened Bethel academy in 2014. Traditional schools just weren’t for her, not because she’s not bright but because — like so many Acceleration Academies students — she had family responsibilities that didn’t allow for a conventional schedule.
When veteran educators Dr. Joseph Wise and David Sundstrom began Acceleration Academies a decade ago, they based it on the findings of a national study they had earlier initiated on the question of why youths drop out. In most cases, they found, it wasn’t because the students did not want to learn.
Instead, they found, traditional schools had a hard time accommodating students who felt they didn’t fit in with peers, struggled with juggling multiple subjects, felt ill at ease with themselves and their abilities, or had family and work obligations that didn’t allow them to follow the standard school schedule. Working in partnership with the innovative leaders of the Bethel School District, Dr. Wise and Sundstrom opened their flagship Acceleration Academy in 2014. Academies are now operating in public school districts in Washington, Florida and South Carolina, with others to open soon in Texas and Kansas.
Shortly before enrolling at BAA, Hannah had become pregnant with her second daughter and was put on bedrest. The ability to do online courses from home and get one-on-one coaching in-person and remotely allowed her to re-engage in her studies during her pregnancy and after.
It wasn’t always easy, but she had plenty of support from BAA director Gin Hooks and her team — particularly Kevin Torres, the social studies coach who is one of Bethel’s original faculty members.
“Coach Torres, I’m so glad he is still there. He was amazing,” she says. “If I would have a bad day or I would want to leave early because I was overwhelmed by my classes or my children, he would say, ‘Hang in there. You have three more credits and, eventually, you have just half a credit left.’ ”
“If it wasn’t for him,” she says, “I wouldn’t have finished.”
Other team members were also supportive, she said. And the campus environment — unlike traditional school settings— provided an atmosphere of calm, with quiet study areas, comfortable chairs, the freedom to plug in headphones and take breaks when needed. “You could sit in a comfortable lounge chair and put your feet up. Just like being in a coffee shop,” she says. “I don’t think traditional school is for everybody.”
Because she was an early grad, Hannah did not have the chance to participate in a group commencement. But she said Bethel School District officials invited her, BAA staff members and her family to participate in a small ceremony at district headquarters. Her two daughters, mom, sister and grandmother all watched her receive the diploma she had worked so hard to earn.
Her daughters, Kora and Nova, are now 9 and 6, and they have a 4-year-old brother, Bubba. During the Covid pandemic, the girls and their mom all studied together at home. Hannah completed the 2-year program to earn her licensed practical nurse certification, and she’s moving on to get her bachelor’s degree and registered nurse certification and, beyond that, intends to become a nurse practitioner.
“We all just worked together,” she said of the mother-daughter study group. “They know it’s important and they know it’s just what you gotta do.”
While she had been working in a urology practice, her new job at the methadone clinic is a step toward the work for which she cares most deeply. Having seen family members struggle with addiction, she wants to do her part to help them find a better life.
“There’s no stopping,” she says of her love of acquiring knowledge and putting it to work. “I’m not done. I’m not done at all.”