Polk State Lakeland Gateway to College will graduate its first class — consisting of nine students who might otherwise have never finished high school — at 6:30 p.m. on June 2 at the Polk State Lakeland Technology Building.
Gateway, one of three public charter high schools the College operates, opened last fall. As a member of the Gateway to College National Network, it serves students who have dropped out of high school or who are unlikely to graduate. Examples of the circumstances Gateway students face: homelessness, teenage pregnancy, or the burden of providing for their families.
Gateway offers its students a non-traditional path to a high school diploma. Classes are offered in the late afternoon and evening, as well as online. Students also receive one-on-one assistance, be it with their homework or with navigating social services. Gateway also requires students to take college-credit classes.
More than 100 students enrolled at the school in its first year, and nine of those will cross the commencement stage during Gateway’s first-ever graduation ceremony next week.
On average, the graduates have earned just over eight college credits and have a grade-point average of 2.5. They range in age from 17 to 21, and represent cities across Polk County, from Lake Wales to Lakeland.
“They’re different, but they’re the same too, in that they’ve learned to be persistent and never give up,” said Polk State Lakeland Gateway to College Director Sallie Brisbane.
“This is only the beginning for these students. Gateway — and its first graduating class — will build on the momentum of this year and continue to succeed.”
Among Gateway’s Class of 2014 are Cameron Gadson, Jennifer Gougeon and Dustin Powell, who, indeed, come from different circumstances. They all share one thing, however, after Gateway, the future is very bright.
Cameron Gadson: Moving Forward with Confidence
For Cameron Gadson, traditional high school never was a good fit.
He was a good student, but bored in class. Classes started at 7 a.m., but he was still half-asleep when that first bell rang. Little by little, he became disengaged, and by his sophomore year, it was time to make a change.
“I missed probably about 30 days of school that year,” said Gadson, 18, a resident of Mulberry. “My grade-point average dropped from 3.3 to 2.8. I wasn’t headed in a good direction.”
By his junior year, Gadson found the challenge he needed through dual enrollment at Polk State College. He took one course, Intro to Ethics, and everything started to change. His GPA climbed and he was excited about going to school again.
“Dual enrollment was a turning point for me,” Gadson said. “I wanted more of that.”
When his senior year rolled around, Gadson heard about Gateway. Even though the school is designed to help students in the most severe circumstances — from homelessness to teenage pregnancy — Gadson felt it could help him too. His time at Polk had helped him turn a corner academically, and he wanted to keep moving in that direction.
At Gateway, Gadson has thrived. He starts classes at 11 a.m., when he feels rested and ready to concentrate. He is done with school by the late afternoon, allowing him to still work his two part-time jobs.
He took a College Success class, where he learned organization techniques. He now sorts and files all his class notes and assignments. His GPA is now up to a 3.1. He’s accumulated 15 credits — a quarter of what he needs for his associate’s degree.
But it’s the changes on the inside that may be the most profound for Gadson.
“I feel more confident in myself. I was going to go to college no matter what, but if I hadn’t gone to Gateway, I wouldn’t be as prepared as I am,” he said.
Gadson said he plans to attend either Valencia College or Florida Atlantic University. He wants to become a paralegal — and maybe one day an international humanitarian attorney.
“After coming to Gateway, I’m ready,” Gadson said. “I’m ready to go to a new city, make new friends, start fresh, and succeed.”
Jennifer Gougeon: A Place to Belong, A Place to Finish
For Jennifer Gougeon, traditional high school was full of distractions. There were cliques and gossip, and all the “drama” that comes with hundreds of teenagers interacting under the same roof every day.
Gougeon, now 21, attended her home high school, but she wasn’t really there. She was bored in class. She couldn’t find her place in the high school social strata. She went through the motions, until she decided not to anymore.
The summer after her sophomore year, she transferred to a charter school that allowed her to do much of her schoolwork online. After two years, the school shut down. Still a few credits shy of her diploma, she enrolled at a similar school, but before she could graduate, it shut down, too.
Now six years into her quest for a high school diploma, Gougeon was still nearly a dozen credits shy of her goal.
Last fall, at age 20, she attended an open house for Gateway. The school, she learned, will take students up to age 21. If she was going to get her diploma, this was her last shot.
Thankfully for Gougeon, Gateway has given her what the other schools could not.
“It’s such an open environment,” Gougeon said. “It doesn’t matter what you look like or what you’re into,” she said. “The students all come from different backgrounds and they don’t judge each other.”
In addition to the newfound support she found from her classmates, Gougeon also said the staff at Gateway has been a constant source of encouragement.
“They’ve always reassured me. Whenever I need someone to talk to, they’re there. I’ve been really determined, but it has still been very hard. They’ve kept me going when I didn’t want to,” she said.
Gougeon said she expects to “cry like a baby” when she’s handed her diploma. She’s earned four college credits from Polk while studying at Gateway. She plans to continue on to earn her Associate in Arts degree.
She’s also making plans to open an auto repair and body shop. One day she might like to study diesel mechanics.
“Since coming to Gateway, I’ve learned to believe in myself,” she said. “I can do anything.”
Dustin Powell: Graduating, But Just Getting Started
At 19, Dustin Powell had spent years struggling in traditional schools. He struggled academically because of his attention deficit disorder. He struggled socially because he never felt accepted by his classmates or teachers.
He began acting out, getting into trouble at school and with the law. Then he simply gave up. By his senior year of high school, he’d stopped attending classes and earning money delivering pizza.
When he heard about Polk State Lakeland Gateway to College, he thought just maybe it could help him.
He was right.
“I had to do everything wrong before I got it right, but thankfully I was able to make it here, to get out of trouble with my head still above water, and make it to Gateway,” he said.
Looking back on the past year, he realizes how much he’s grown at Gateway.
“I started to pay for my own gas and food and insurance,” said Powell, a resident of Lakeland who now works in customer service at a gas station.
“I started to realize how much it costs to live in the real world. I have to continue my education to get anywhere in life.”
After he graduates from Gateway, he will continue at Polk State to pursue a degree and eventually work as a wildlife protection officer.
“It still hasn’t hit me that I’m graduating,” Powell said. “I’m going to have to actually walk across that stage to believe it. It’s been a long time coming.”
Polk State Lakeland Gateway to College High School is currently enrolling for fall semester. For more information, please contact Director Sallie Brisbane at 863.669.2322 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Polk State Lakeland is located at 3425 Winter Lake Road.
In addition to Gateway, the College operates Polk State Chain of Lakes Collegiate in Winter Haven and Polk State Lakeland Collegiate. All three schools allow students to simultaneously complete their high school diplomas and earn college credit. In many cases, students graduate with both their diplomas and associate’s degrees.