July 9, 2018
By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools
David Garcia always knew he wanted to be part of a “big graduation” with his friends at Smyrna High School.
Like his friends and so many other freshmen, who sometimes lack the foresight of long-term consequences, Garcia thought there had to be an “easier” way in which he could go about completing the required coursework on his terms and at his pace. Unlike his friends, Garcia convinced his mother to homeschool him as a sophomore and junior.
On a recommendation from a family friend, who attends the same church as the Garcia family, they found a program that seemed more affordable than other programs.
Garcia and his mother went to visit with an administrator to simply “gain some information,” but he was an aggressive recruiter and they were “pressured to move quickly.”
“The same day we got the books and everything,” recalled Garcia.
For the next two years, he did all the coursework outlined in the program, but, in hindsight, Garcia feels like he and his mother were “scammed.”
Last summer, he contacted Smyrna High School to reenroll as a senior.
He met with Smyrna counselor Kendall Knox and graduation coach Mike Messerly.
Garcia was shocked to find out the homeschooling program he had been enrolled in was not accredited. Messerly said there are about 40 accredited programs nationwide and that Garcia chose one of the few that lacks that accreditation.
Garcia initially feared he would not even earn a high school diploma and would have to settle for a general education diploma.
“That was the thing I was worried about,” said Garcia, who plans to enroll in classes at Motlow State Community College this fall. “It was pretty intense for me. I was hoping to graduate with my class of 2018.”
He was disappointed with his decision-making.
And he was embarrassed by the outcome.
“That’s what motivated him,” Messerly said. “He cares enough to be embarrassed. You’ll run into kids who are not embarrassed by much of anything, but (Garcia) cares and it wasn’t easy.”
Messerly added, “I knew talking to him he was serious about finishing. He wasn’t one of these kids saying what he thought everybody wanted to hear.”
Garcia was a “big project,” according to Messerly.
Knox focused on credit recovery — Garcia took two online courses in addition to a full-time schedule at school during the entire school year — while Messerly crafted a plan and then oversaw Garcia’s progress.
Messerly said it was a struggle but Garcia was determined.
Garcia was enrolled in a pair of classes for the first semester of summer school and two more classes in the second semester. He’s currently taking physical science and U.S. history, and he is scheduled to graduate later this month with a dozen other summer school graduates.
“He’s a rarity,” Messerly said of Garcia. “He’s not given up.”
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There are 406 students enrolled in summer school this year in a total of 526 courses.
Garcia is part of the 71.4 percent of the students repeating a course for credit recovery purposes, while 58.1 percent or 236 students are talking courses for the first time.
Those percentage are consistent between the first summer semester and the current second semester. There were 198 students in June compared to 208 in July.
While Garcia’s story is an anomaly, Thomas Brewer’s story — heartbreaking as it is – is a more common theme in a public school district like Rutherford County.
With just over 45,000 students enrolled, there is a growing number of homeless students.
Brewer, 17, was living in Alabama with mother and sister.
Just prior to the start of the 2017-2018 school year, they were evicted from their home. Instead of starting his junior year of high school, Brewer and his mother moved to Colorado, where they were led to believe they would have a room and beds of their own.
But after a few months of sleeping on the floor, they headed to Illinois, which led to the one time last fall Brewer enrolled in school.
“The story of Thomas Brewer is very typical,” Messerly said. “No stability in their lives and they’re all over the place.”
Brewer attended for a couple weeks before he and his mother found themselves on the streets again. This time, he found them a place to live in Kentucky with a friend. By January, they were living in Michigan.
Brewer said they would have been better off staying with his friend in Kentucky.
When things did not work out in Michigan, his mother headed out to California and he went to live with his father, whom he had not seen in eight years, in Smyrna.
“It’s passed,” said Brewer. “OK, it happened. Whatever? I’m fine. She’s fine.”
He added, “We kept moving and people kept saying they would help us and then things would happen and then we would be back out on the street. I am currently with my dad and everything is fine.”
Brewer enrolled in Smyrna High School on Feb. 2.
His junior year was basically lost. However, with the help of counselors at Smyrna, he remains hopeful that he will graduate on time in May 2019. This coming year, he’ll work closely with Messerly.
In the meantime, like Garcia, Brewer is taking advantage of summer school.
“There are definitely people trying to help me and want to see me graduate next May,” said Brewer, who is enrolled in Spanish I this summer. “I’ve always been a pretty casual student, and it’s always been pretty easy for me, so it’s not been overwhelming.”
He shrugged and then added, “I’m going to do what I have to do to graduate at this point.”
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“We are the only (district) that I know of that has a grad coach position,” said Messerly, who believes Garcia is lucky “in that he came to Rutherford County.”
It’s been a life-lesson.
And one he won’t soon forget.
Garcia feels “super lucky” and his advice to anyone else considering homeschooling is to “don’t slack, stay focused and don’t try to find the easiest way possible. Just do it the right way.”
He credits Rutherford County Schools with having the resources available for him to succeed at graduating on-time. Anyone graduating within four years and one summer are classified as having graduated on-time, according to the rules adopted by the Tennessee Department of Education.
“He’s a great example of we got him when he was in dire straits,” Messerly concluded, “and now he’s on his way to getting his high school diploma.”
PHOTO CREDIT / KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT