Olivia O’Neil has high-flying dreams for herself. But she knew she couldn’t realize them without a high school diploma.
“I found myself struggling in a traditional high school setting, never went to school and was an ‘F’ student,” Olivia said. At one point, her mother suggested she simply get a GED — and Olivia said, no thank you.
Olivia wants to join the military and become a pilot, an ambition that required her first to earn a diploma. With support from the educators at St. Lucie Acceleration Academies, the personalized study plan they offered — and some gentle-but-firm prodding along the way — she recently did just that.
“It was all about pace for me. I was not keeping up with others at traditional school and Acceleration Academies let me work at my own pace,” she said. “The teachers helped me a lot.”
Olivia is 21 now. Growing up, she flew frequently as an unaccompanied minor on flights between her mother’s home in Florida and her father’s in Boston. She was fascinated by the work of the commercial pilots, and they invited her to come in and see the panel of instruments and gauges, to gaze through the broad front window — and to imagine what it would be like to take the controls herself some day.
“I just feel happy,” she says of being aloft. “Being up there and everything’s so open and free.”
She comes from a military family, and embraces the idea of serving her country while also pursuing her passion. While a graduation candidate at SLAA, she got a job at Palm Beach International Airport helping to direct planes as they navigate between gate and runway. The position normally requires a diploma, but she says her boss allowed her to take it as long as she was making steady progress toward graduation.
That progress sometimes faltered, she acknowledges. She would sometimes fall off pace due to her longstanding challenges with focus, and when her beloved grandmother passed away, she fell into a depression that further stymied her.
But the team at SLAA never gave up during her 2.5 years at SLAA, particularly academy director Paige Latham and graduation candidate advocate Emerald Jamison.
“I wanted to give up about five months ago and they just blew up my phone. Honestly, I just put them on ‘Do Not Disturb’ on my phone,” she recalls with a laugh. “Finally I came to realize I was almost there, I might as well finish.”
And finish she did. On a sunny summer day, she donned cap and gown and strode across the stage as her mother, father and remaining grandmother beamed with pride.
“We’ve had a lot of speed bumps and a lot of curves, but she just never quit,” says her mother, Jenna. “I actually gave her the option two years ago to get her GED. She said, “Absolutely not.”
Olivia’s dad, Michael, is the successful owner of a HVAC business, but he carries with him a regret from his youth. “I got a GED,” he says, “and I wish I had finished high school and gone to college.”
Olivia’s family is proud of her tenacity, and of the fact that she’s laid the foundation for a brighter future. “She’s had her ups and downs,” says her mom. “And now she’ll have more ups than downs.”
What advice might Olivia offer to others who are struggling in traditional schools? First, enroll in Acceleration Academies. And then …
“Never give up.”