Melvin Lee graduated from East Carolina University in May with degrees in biology and political science. Now, he builds robots for the military with an AmeriCorps program called Operation LINK.
Lee, 25, returned to Knightdale High School Tuesday to tell the senior class about his journey to success. He graduated from Knightdale in 2009 after repeating his senior year three times, with little extracurricular involvement and hanging out with the wrong crowd.
“I looked at my GPA and I was second to last in my class,” Lee said. “Many administrators said I’d never make it.”
But they were wrong. After graduation, he earned his associate’s degree at a community college, then went on to undergrad. This year, he will enter law school.
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Lee was one of 12 alumni to speak to an auditorium full of seniors at Knightdale High.
The event, dubbed “A Day in the Life of a Knight,” is part of the Knight Watch program initiated by the school’s administration to keep an eye on at-risk students and help them graduate on time.
The program is in its first year and is spearheaded by intervention coordinator Vernestine Kent, who has already passed out 300 save-the-date invitations for graduation day, June 9, 2015.
“Many students are afraid to graduate because school is safe,” Kent said. She has started various strategic programs at the school and labeled at-risk students as “Seniors of Success.”
There are 78 at-risk seniors in the program who are being monitored and meet weekly with a mentoring teacher in addition to their academic adviser. Fourteen faculty and staff members make up the Knight Watch team, although other teachers might mentor students.
Last year, Knightdale High’s graduation rate was 81.9 percent. Principal Jim Argent said the school’s goal is to make it 85 percent this school year.
During Tuesday’s panel, alumni shared a wide variety of stories. Jonathan Wall, who graduated in 2008, shared his experience of making it to Harvard Law School and his goal to work with civil rights in education.
Bryan Sumner, class of 2012, talked about the difficulty of switching college majors during the birth of his daughter and 2011 graduate Derrick Tillison told the seniors about his career as a recording artist, including a recent single featuring Soulja Boy.
Kent said that she is already encouraged – many “Seniors of Success” have already completed college applications.
In addition to mentoring, Knight Watch offers subject tutoring by the National Honors Society and parent volunteers, as well as a parent night to encourage family participation.
“It’s not a matter of if it clicks, it’s a matter of when,” Argent said, emphasizing the program’s priority in making student’s graduation focus click sooner rather than later.
Another method that the administration is taking to improve graduation rates is to track down students that have moved, transferred or dropped out. If they have graduated or re-enrolled elsewhere, that can help Knightdale High’s graduation rate.
One of Kent’s strategies is to create a card for each “Senior of Success.” On it is a photo of the student, dressed in their cap and gown. Lettering on the cap spells out a note: “It’s up to me and you will see, I will graduate Class of 2015.”