The first wave of 2022 graduates from Bethel Acceleration Academies recently celebrated the successful completion of what, for many of them, had been a long journey to graduation. As they handed the grads their diplomas, Academy Director Alison Hansen and Assistant Director Kevin Torres congratulated the young men and women on persevering despite sometimes daunting odds.
“We are proud of you,” Hansen said to the graduates, who were surrounded by joyful family members, friends, Academy educators and special guests Bethel School District Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Bethman and Acceleration Academies Chief of Academy Operations Deborah Doordan.
“Earning your diploma is a big deal. It gives you access to a university or a college. It meets the requirement for a pathway to military service or a career of your choice. You — the graduates of 2021 and 2022 — go down in history as students who persevered through a pandemic to earn the educational foundation required to receive this diploma today. You have inspired all of us with your commitment and dedication. It has truly been an honor for us to know and work with exceptional young people like you.”
Meet some of the grads:
Va Shon Evans-Barnwell: Setting an Example
For 4 years, Va Shon Evans-Barnwell showed up at high school, making an appearance and going through the motions — but not much more. When it came time to join his classmates at graduation in 2019, he didn’t have enough credits to stride across the stage and claim his diploma.
“I didn’t have the drive to finish,” Va Shon acknowledges. “I showed up, I was there, but I didn’t do anything.”
Va Shon had become the father of a baby girl during his junior year. He was working at McDonald’s to pay the bills. After dropping out, he got a job loading freight at a warehouse, improving his hourly wage from $12.50 to $15 and moving from part- to full-time. For a while, he thought, “I’m good.”
“Everybody says you can make a lot of money without having a high school diploma so I was going that route.”
But then he suffered a back injury and broke his hand. “My body was breaking down. It was like if I break another bone, I’m out of work and then what am I going to do?” He started looking for other jobs, ones that might allow him to use his brain instead of just his brawn. But again and again, he learned those doors wouldn’t open without a high school diploma.
“It was definitely the lack of a diploma that was holding me back.”
Then he learned about Bethel Acceleration Academies, where flexible scheduling and a personalized path to a diploma offered a second chance. He decided to grab it. And while teachers at his old school might have allowed him to slack off, he soon learned that the coaches at BAA would not.
“They were pushing, man, hitting me up every day,” he says. And when he’d lose sight of his goal, they would remind him. “ ‘Hey, your diploma. Remember.’ ”
Graduation candidate advocate Steve Shamburger pushed in a caring but firm way, never shying from the tough conversations. At one point, Shamburger said, “I don’t want to waste my energy if you’re not doing your part.”
That got Va Shon’s attention. He laughs when describing his reaction. “I’m young,” says the now 20-year-old. “I was annoyed but I understood it was for a greater purpose. He really wanted me to succeed.”
And succeed he did, celebrating with family, friends and educators at the recent commencement ceremony as he held up the diploma he had worked so hard to earn.
He’s making plans to build a career in marketing, engineering or accounting. He’s well-spoken, good with numbers and has moved into a supervisory role at his warehouse job. “I’m learning my leadership skills now here at the warehouse, and I want to transfer those leadership skills to something more professional.”
He’s got another baby on the way and hopes his example of pushing through adversity to earn his diploma will set a good example for his children. “I’ve got to do it for them, make sure they have a good role model.”
Velliesa Castellano: When She Reached Out, Help Was Always There
For Velliesa Castellano, the traditional in-person and online school opportunities just didn’t work. Only when she found her way to Bethel Acceleration Academies and its blend of the two approaches did she hit her stride.
And when her motivation flagged, she knew BAA educators like graduation candidate advocate Starr Phillips would be right there to pick her up.
“A couple of times she even stopped by my house to see if I was okay,” Velliesa said of Phillips. “It let me know that she was going out of her way to get hold of me.”
Like many learners at Acceleration Academies, Velliesa has a job to help pay the bills. Those demands made it hard to also fit in a traditional school day and do a good job on homework in her off hours.
“I just didn’t have the motivation every day to physically get up and go to school. I was trying to do work and school at the same time,” she says. Six months at an online school proved no better. Whenever she would reach out for help, “Nobody would ever get back to me.”
She found the opposite at BAA. In addition to Phillips, Academy directors and content coaches Alison Hansen and Kevin Torres made themselves available when she needed help, even outside of regular school hours.
“When I needed help and reached out, they got right back to me,” she says.
And the help extended outside of her academic needs; when she was having trouble affording nutritious food, staff members helped her find additional resources. “They definitely helped me out.”
Now 21, Velliesa had to miss the recent graduation ceremony, but for a beautiful reason: She was giving birth to her baby girl, Queen. When Queen grows up and learns about her mom’s perseverance, she hopes she will learn a lesson.
“I hope that she understands that even if you feel you’re behind in life, it’s never too late to get what you want.”
Matteo Orozco: ‘It Felt Like People Actually Cared’
Matteo Orozco’s 21st birthday was bearing down, and with it the chance to earn his high school diploma rather than settle for a GED. Still, he couldn’t keep his momentum and successfully complete the coursework he needed to graduate.
He decided, for the second time, to drop out. But when he came to the campus of Bethel Acceleration Academies to drop off his laptop computer and make it official, he walked in to find a troop of his coaches ready to administer some tough love.
“It was kind of like an intervention,” recalls Matteo. “They just told me I was so close, what’s the point of quitting.”
As a result of the meeting, Mateo kept the laptop the academy had lent him and got back to work on the three courses he needed to cross the finish line. As he prepared to celebrate his diploma at the recent commencement ceremony, he said he was grateful for the team’s gentle confrontation.
“I felt really good, to be honest,” he says. “It felt like people actually cared.”
Matteo had fallen off track when his family moved right as he was to begin his senior year in high school. He left a school filled with classmates he had known since kindergarten and transferred to Bethel High, where he knew nobody.
“It was a really big shift and I didn’t take it too well,” he says. Rather than focusing on his studies, he began hanging around at home and, worse, on the streets. “I got more involved with what was going on outside of school than what was going on in school.”
As graduation neared, he realized that he lacked the credits needed for his diploma. He reached out to his history teacher to see if he could do something to make up the lost ground. The teacher said, “I’ve barely seen you in my class, to be honest. So I don’t have anything for you.”
Then he learned about BAA, where a flexible schedule and generous one-on-one coaching offered him a different path forward. At his mother’s urging, he signed up.
With schools temporarily closed due to the Covid pandemic, Matteo was able to work from home thanks to the laptop computer dropped off by graduation candidate advocate Steve Shamburger. Once the academy reopened and he was able to come on campus, Alison Hansen — the former math content coach and current academy director — stopped by every hour to check on his progress and offer encouragement.
Especially influential was academic coach Stacy Nikolaisen, who urged Matteo to get something done every day “so it’s not drowning but instead swimming back to the top,” he recalls. “That was really cool. I never had a teacher who put her hand out like that.”
Matteo plans to pursue a career in music. And he has some advice for young people who, like him, wondered if they are going to make it to graduation day.
“I’d say get your head in the game. Finish hard,” he says. “Pay attention to what’s ahead of you and not what’s distracting you.”
Melanie Sweaney: ‘The Full Meal Deal’
For Melanie Sweaney, the trouble with traditional high school wasn’t that she had trouble keeping up. Instead, the quick learner had trouble slowing down to the pace of a one-size-fits-all classroom.
“I was bored,” she says. “I would learn what they were teaching and then I would move on.”
After dropping out, Melanie found her way to Bethel Acceleration Academies, where the personalized approach allowed her to work at her own speedy pace. “That’s what’s really cool about Acceleration Academies. You can go at your own pace. You can do a lot of work if you want.”
That’s not to say that she always stayed on track. She first came to BAA at age 17, then fell away. She returned at 19 and then, at last, bore down on her studies and earned the right to graduate — a milestone she celebrated just as she was turning 22.
Melanie says she couldn’t have done it without the steady support of BAA educators. They put together a plan with realistic milestones and helped her to push away discouragement and find success.
“In my head, the diploma seemed impossible to get and it was too late,” says Melanie. “They said it’s not too late. No matter how many times I messed up that plan they were still there, always helping me and adjusting it.”
Part of her difficulty stemmed from a bad car accident, which impaired her memory for a period of time and made it challenging to retain information. But when she would go to the academy, settle into a chair and get to work, she only had to look up to see her coaches urging her on.
Assistant Director and social studies content coach Kevin Torres checked in on her regularly, as did Director and math content coach Alison Hansen. Graduation candidate advocate Starr Phillips saw her working long hours and brought her a meal from Subway.
“It was the full meal deal,” says Melanie — a description that fit not just that day’s lunch. “They never gave up on me.”
Melanie wants to build a career in health care. She began working as a care aide and was recently promoted to medication technician at an assisted living facility. She plans to further her education and become a nurse.
“I genuinely like helping people,” she says. “You get to be a part of people’s lives. You get to help them maintain their independence. You help them to find happiness in moments that aren’t happy.”
Having completed the long journey through high school, Melanie is building her own happiness as well. “With a diploma, I have so many more options.”