When new graduation candidates arrive for orientation at Gwinnett County Acceleration Academies, Jamaal Hickman greets them at the door. “I tell them, ‘I meet you right here and I’m going to be there when you get your high school diploma.’ ”
In between that nervous first day and the celebratory walk across the graduation stage, Hickman never stops paying attention. For the graduation candidate advocate, there’s no more important work than providing young people with the kind of firm, positive support that might be lacking in other parts of their lives.
“You have to have that somebody — it doesn’t have to be a relative, it can be a teacher, a mentor — somebody who can give you that nudge to get where you want to get to. Somebody to lean on.”
Growing up in Alabama, Hickman was one of the lucky ones. He had “an amazing father and mother,” a strong family network and the discipline and teamwork of a basketball team. He graduated and went on to college, but some of his friends did not.
Some didn’t finish high school. In Alabama when Hickman was in school, state law allowed people to drop out when they reached the age of 16. “On the day they turned 16, they just walked out the door.”
That freedom didn’t always translate to life success, as many hit rough patches, including time in jail. Eventually, most figured things out and became successful workers, spouses, parents and members of the community. But, Hickman says, “it was a rougher road.”
When young people walk through the doors at GCAA, it’s often their last opportunity to find the smoother road that a high school diploma can provide. As their advocate, Hickman tries to work with them to clear away the personal barriers to academic success, including a less-than-robust work ethic.
Every morning, he sends a message to each of the learners on his caseload. “Hey, what’s your goal today?” he asks. “Are you logging in? Are you coming onsite?’
He urges them to set realistic goals — and then to keep at it until they are achieved.
“Be honest with yourself,” he tells them. “Don’t just put something down that you think’s going to please me. Put something down that you can commit.”
Those who don’t respond haven’t heard the last of Coach Hickman. “I call myself a bounty hunter. I’m going to call you, I’m going to text you and if you don’t respond, I’m going to knock on your door,” he says.
“I want you to know that I’m that committed to help you, but you have to do the work.”
Gwinnett County Acceleration Academies accepts new students on a rolling basis. For more information, check out the academy web page and fill out an online enrollment form.