COLUMBIA— Terryonna Samuels had to make more trips to the podium during graduation than she'd expected.
First, she delivered the senior address. Then she returned to the stage six more times for each of the scholarships she won.
The graduate and mother of a 2-year-old girl left the Missouri Theater on Friday not only with a high school diploma and an A average but also with more than $5,000 toward her college education.
“I feel awesome,” said Samuels, dressed in an electric blue gown and graduation cap. "I’m going to have a whole bunch of money for school, and I won’t have to worry about books or anything.”
Samuels was one of the 92 Douglass High School students who received their diplomas Friday. The school, which graduated its largest ever class this year, provides a nontraditional approach to education. Douglass offers small class sizes and programs to meet individual needs, including an in-house childcare facility.
Douglass High School Principal Eryca Neville celebrated the efforts of her students and encouraged them to keep moving forward.
“Make your haters your motivators,” Neville, who is also the director of alternative education at Columbia Public Schools, said at the event. "You’re capable of reaching heights nobody has ever imagined. How do I know you’re capable of reaching greatness? You prove it to me daily, and you’re proving it to me right now.”
Neville emphasized the ways Douglass is more family than school. Samuels experienced that difference firsthand. After giving birth to her daughter in January 2012, Samuels left Hickman High School for Douglass because she wasn't getting the support she needed.
"As soon as they found out I had a daughter, they tried to help me out,” Samuels said. "They helped me move into my first house, they helped me get my first job, they helped me get my first car. They even came and decorated my house when I moved in.”
Through a partnership between The District and Douglass, Samuels became a paid intern with the organization, which promotes downtown Columbia and strives to create a vibrant urban space, according to its website. She worked four hours a day, six times weekly, sweeping downtown and serving as a tourist ambassador.
While wrapping up her high school education and working with The District, Samuels also finished her first semester at Moberly Area Community College. She plans to complete a two-year certificate there and get an education degree at Columbia College.
“She’s overcome all these odds all by herself,” said Denise Parker, a history and English teacher at Douglass who has known Samuels since the young mother was in fourth grade. Parker remembers Samuels bringing her daughter to school and taking care of her while doing schoolwork.
Parker, who teaches 11th and 12th grades, also had O’Shea Clarkson as a student. Clarkson transferred to Douglass from Hickman in 10th grade because he felt more comfortable in a small class setting.
"I don’t do that well around too many people as far as my focus because I am a people person, so I joke around,” Clarkson said. "I found that a smaller area with less people gave me more time to work."
His transition into Douglass wasn't smooth. Two years ago, he had a fight with one of his classmates and was suspended for 10 days. The school suggested he attend a program that would require him to put his schooling on hold, he said. But he refused. He was determined to graduate from high school for his mother. Clarkson said he's the first of her children to graduate high school.
Clarkson's experience at Douglass helped him become goal-oriented, he said. He hopes to work until next spring and then start college. He'd like a career in music and photography.
"I’m just truly blessed to have done this and to be here,” Clarkson said.
While at Douglass, Clarkson also interned with The District. His experience there was eye-opening, he said.
"This job really helped me know that I can do any job,” Clarkson said. "If I can sweep outside in the heat for four hours a day six days a week, I can flip burgers at McDonalds, or I could rap on stage, or I could be the president some day.”
Parker said he has great potential.
“O’Shea is smart and articulate and has a great sense of humor,” Parker said. "He’s one of the people I know will go far.”
Through her work at Douglass, Parker is part of the effort to give more opportunities to people who haven’t succeeded in traditional environments. She said that although some of her students don’t have much support at home and others have none at all, Douglass is slowly changing the public’s perception of its students.
“These kids are brilliant.” Parker said. "It’s just about helping them understand how smart they are and how far they can go.”
Supervising editor is Seth Klamann.