Mike Creech has fought hard for the right to walk across the graduation stage at Smithfield-Selma High School on Friday.
Success in school has never come easily for the 19-year-old from Selma. He repeated a grade in middle school and, in high school, had to largely take his sophomore classes over because he had all but dropped out.
Intelligence and aptitude were never the problems, but putting on his best behavior always proved challenging. A lot of the time, Creech said, he would act up just to get sent home because he hated school.
On top of his usual challenges, Creech began his final semester under a cloud of tragedy. Two of his best friends, Robert Naughton, 17, and Alan Peedin, 18, were hit and killed by an Amtrak train Jan. 22. Naughton, in particular, was like a brother to Creech, he said.
The shock made Creech question whether he wanted to return to school at all. But after grieving for two weeks at home, he decided to channel his emotions toward a positive goal.
“I used the pain and grief and everything to fuel my desire to graduate,” he said. “Losing my best friends fueled me to strive for more to make something out of my life because I wanted to make them proud.”
Creech got the support to realize that goal through a program called the Spartan Academy, which launched in January. The academy meets from 2 to 5 p.m. and completely replaces the regular school day, said Shane Benson, SSS’s graduation coach and administrator of the new program. Traditional SSS students have class from 7:15 a.m. to 2:20 p.m.
The Spartan Academy schedules the specific credits students need for graduation, Benson said, and sets them up for success by removing the distractions of a regular high school environment. To make the academy accessible to the neediest of students, SSS provides bus service and serves a meal.
To graduate this year, Creech needed three credits: English IV, algebra I and algebra II. In a traditional high school setting, Benson said, Creech might not have been able to fulfill those two sequential math credits in a single semester. The Spartan Academy allowed Creech to advance at his own pace, Benson said, and he quickly took care of algebra I and moved on to the next level.
“This guy is a lot smarter than he initially thought he was, and he moved through that math quickly,” Benson said of Creech. “And the great thing about Spartan Academy was, he didn’t have to wait for the whole class.”
When Creech first learned his guidance counselor had recommended him for the academy, he was reluctant about the idea. In fact, the first question he asked Benson was, “Do I have to do it?” Now, he says he would gladly serve as a spokesman to encourage other students to give the Spartan Academy a try.
“This program is the reason why I will graduate,” Creech said. “I actually enjoyed school for the first time.”
The Spartan Academy currently has 19 students, Benson said, and all seven seniors in the group will graduate on time. The plan came from first-year Principal Stephen Baker, Benson said, and all of the teachers involved look forward to growing the program and building upon this semester’s success.
Looking to the future
For the past three months, Creech has worked the register at the Wendy’s in Selma. That’s the longest time Creech has held a single job, he said, and the Spartan Academy offered him enough flexibility to work while continuing his education.
For instance, Creech said, he could get out of school an hour early if he notified the staff in advance that he needed to be at work at 5 p.m. That gave him enough time to go home, eat something, take a shower and make it to work on time.
Having that leeway is vital to several students in the Spartan Academy, Benson said, because they would otherwise have to choose between finishing high school and having enough money to live on. One student, he said, could not afford to keep a roof over his head if he did not have a job.
When talking about his son’s accomplishment, Creech’s father, Mike, beams with pride. He always tried to push his boy academically, he said, and made sure he understood failure was not an option.
“He was going to graduate one way or the other, for the simple fact that I didn’t graduate,” Mike said said. “And that’s the one thing I pushed my kids to do is graduate. To do better than I did.”
Benson and Creech’s dad see even more potential in him. They want him to enroll in at least a couple of classes at Johnston Community College next fall, but Creech isn’t sure about the idea. For now, he plans to keep working as many hours as he can get at Wendy’s.
Creech’s father said he’ll give his son until after the Fourth of July holiday to celebrate his accomplishment, but then he plans to start pushing him back toward academics.
Creech still carries the burden on having lost two close friends to tragedy, and it is sometimes hard for him to enter SSS because of the memories it stirs. Around his neck, Creech wears a small metal container that holds some of Naughton’s ashes. When he walks across the stage at graduation, Creech said, he will be doing it for, and because, of them.
“I know they would be proud,” he said.
By the Numbers
Here are some numbers about the Smithfield-Selma High School class of 2015.
$2.3 million in scholarships earned, up from $500,000 last year
7 of 7 seniors graduating from the Spartan Academy
6 International Baccalaureate graduates
High school graduations
Here’s the schedule of high school graduation ceremonies in Johnston County:
▪ Cleveland High: 6 p.m. June 12, at school.
▪ North Johnston High: 6 p.m. June 12, at school.
▪ Smithfield-Selma High: 6 p.m. June 12, at school.
▪ South Johnston High: 6 p.m. June 12, at school.
▪ West Johnston High: 6 p.m. June 12, at school.
▪ Clayton High: 6:30 p.m. June 12, at school.
▪ Corinth-Holders High: 6:30 p.m. June 12, at school.
▪ Princeton High: 7 p.m. June 12, at school.