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“Life is what you make it.”

StoryCorps Facilitator Gaspar Caro and I traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, as part of the National Teacher’s Initiative to record the stories of public school teachers and students in the area. St. Louis is one of 20 cities participating in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s American Graduate Initiative, a multifaceted initiative focused on building the knowledge, understanding, collaboration and resources required to improve high school graduation rates.

We had the pleasure of spending one day at Shearwater High School, an alternative school that helps students attain their high school diplomas and prepares them for college. Walking through the hallways of Shearwater, you are greeted with hand-painted signs of uplifting messages, like “Life is what you make it.” It is a place where young people who have faced serious obstacles in their education come for a second chance.

Ladarrius Williams has been a student at Shearwater since the school opened in 2010. Ladarrius lives in an area of St. Louis where economic challenges have led to a rise in drugs, violence, and gang activity. “It is very hard because you have a lot of violence. I’ve been shot at, stabbed,” Ladarrius says. ” I went to jail for a long time, and it makes me feel bad because I have a little brother who sees everything I’m doing, and I have to set an example and show him that school is a better route to go than being out on the streets and doing nothing with your life.”

To set a better example, Ladarrius enrolled at Shearwater, where instead of grades, students receive Levels of Acquisition (LOAs). Before a student can move to the next topic or level, they must demonstrate a thorough understanding of the subject matter he or she has been taught. For many students, the challenges that Shearwater presents are grueling, but Ladarrius has made the commitment to complete his education regardless of the difficulty. “What motivates me to stay is that I felt like the streets were not for me anymore. [Shearwater] keeps me out of trouble. I’m here to do my work and get ready for college.” While Ladarrius’ neighborhood has not changed, his school environment is filled with tough, but caring teachers and staff who want to see him succeed and make the life that he wants.


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