Lowcountry Acceleration Academy (LAA) celebrated its biggest-ever class of graduates, learners who arrived from across South Carolina’s Lowcountry with one thing in common — a drive to earn the high school diplomas that will make their futures bright.
With applause, shouts of joy and more than a few tears, family, friends and educators celebrated the hard work of the grads.
“We are so honored to celebrate the success of our amazing grads. This class is filled with so many different backgrounds who have so many different stories that made the choice to allow us to play a small part. We will continue to work to create not just a school but experiences that are top notch for young learners just like you and are always here to support you in your next steps,” Academy Director Amber Speights told the grads. “Congratulations, Class of 2023!”
The class included twin sisters Makyia and Mariah Allen, who were among the first graduation candidates to enroll at LAA when it opened two years ago. Damage to their home from a tropical storm and chronic health issues forced them to drop out of their previous school, but the personalized approach offered at LAA allowed them to get back on track.
“We value our education even more because we know what it’s like to not have one,” Mariah said in 2021.
For classmate Colson Walters, LAA’s flexible schedule gave him the opportunity to balance his studies with the weeklong demands of helping to run a family farm and hunting lodge. “When I went to traditional school, I couldn’t work except on the weekends.”
For Sofia Criollo, whose family moved from Columbia two years ago, caring educators stood ready to help her any time she struggled to do coursework in her new language. “They say ‘Ask me anytime you need.’ ”
LAA is a free, public charter school in North Charleston, and will soon be joined by a sister school — Carolina Shores Acceleration Academy in Myrtle Beach — to serve high schoolers looking for a personalized, non-traditional path through school.
Colson lives in St. George, north of Charleston, helping to run a family hunting lodge, Deerfield Plantation, that has become a destination for hunters from around the country and as far away as Germany and Russia. With 12,000 acres of land, 350 deer stands and a steady stream of hunters to guide, it’s a full-time job — and then some.
“The business is hopefully going to be mine and I want to have as much time and learning experience as I can,” says Colson.
The hours of traditional school did not allow for him to be as active in the family business as he’d like. But with the flexibility to do coursework at his own pace and come to campus for tutoring when he needs it, Colson was able to get up early to help customers, devote a chunk of the day to school, then get back to work at the lodge.
Educators like math coach Sarah Aquino stood ready to help him whenever he needed it, says Colson. “At my old school, I didn’t feel like I could talk to my teachers,” he says. “When I come here, I know my teachers. I feel completely fine with asking for help.”
Sofia’s family moved to South Carolina from Columbia in search of better opportunities, but after her mother moved to Miami, Sofia decided to stay, make a home with her boyfriend and continue building her English language skills.
That meant that she, like Colson and other classmates, needed the flexibility to work full-time to support herself. Her shift at a vitamin supply warehouse job begins at 6:30 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m. — but at LAA, she was able to tackle her studies after work and on her days off.
Whenever she needed support, educators like English coach Bria Burke-Koskela and graduation candidate advocate Janell Reyes cheerfully provided it.
“They helped me every time I needed it,” she says. “They really help me after work, because that’s when I can do my assignments.”
Sofia’s English skills are strong, but she says Coach Bria patiently helped her every time she would struggle to learn a new word or expression.
“She’s a really, really patient person,” Sofia says. “Not everyone is born to be a teacher, but she has this really big passion.”
With their diplomas in hand, LAA grads are heading off to a variety of routes to further education and career success. Sofia plans to study to become a veterinary technician and, some day, animal doctor. She and Colson say they are grateful to have found their way to LAA.
Says Colson, “It’s just a completely different way of doing school.”
Here is a sampling of images from graduation day by photojournalist Andrew Whitaker. Click here for the complete gallery.