When schools finally reopened after being closed for months during the Covid pandemic, Olivia Jones had fallen far behind. And the large, traditional high school to which she returned only made things worse.
Olivia felt overwhelmed by the 4,000-plus member student body, the jammed hallways and crowded classrooms. And when other students started to body-shame and bully her, she found herself growing more and more disconnected.
The activities she once loved — color guard, Spanish club, chorus — lost their magic. The classes where she used to get strong grades became, instead, scenes of struggle. The clique-dominated social scene seemed designed to leave her feeling forever on the outside.
“I couldn’t fit in with anybody. I felt alone,” she says. Because of her increasing social anxiety, “it was really hard for me to ask teachers questions — It was just a season of me being lost.”
Just as Olivia was despairing that she might not make it through high school, her mother saw a flier at the grocery store about a new kind of school, one with a welcoming environment, personalized approach and ample one-on-one coaching — Lowcountry Acceleration Academy.
When she walked into the LAA campus, Olivia knew she had found a very different school. Rather than rows of desks, LAA offers comfortable chairs and tables where students can work independently or in small groups. “My first impression was just like, wow! I had never seen a school that looked like a coffee shop.”
Once she enrolled, she found that the spirit of welcome stretched beyond the physical space and into the way the educators and advisors worked with her. She cited, for example, English language arts coach Bria Burke-Koskela and the regular academic and moral support she provides.
“Most teachers are like ‘Do your work, you have to get this done!’ ” says Olivia. “She just really takes the time to get to know her students.”
Graduation candidate advocate Quentin Morrison has also been a big help. “He’s constantly checking in,” says Olivia. “It’s not always about school, it’s about whether you’re doing okay — and I just really appreciate that.”
While graduation candidates are expected to stay on task, they’re also given the freedom to take study breaks when they need it, to use the restroom without obtaining a hall pass, and to help themselves to snacks and drinks in the dining area.
“At regular schools, you aren’t able to eat except at lunch,” Olivia says. “I’m a diabetic and I need to be able to stop and eat sometimes.”
Olivia has also found a welcoming community of fellow learners. She’s had some struggles with mental health, and she has found a spirit of embrace among graduation candidates who experience struggles of their own and are determined to rise above.
“I’ve struggled with my mental health for a long time,” she says. “A lot of these students have had the same experience as me. It makes me feel safe. I don’t feel ashamed.”