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Norfolk’s Open Campus School graduates first class

Josiah and Lillie Nelson belted a chorus of hallelujahs Tuesday as their granddaughter, Shylah Russell, walked across the graduation stage. They have raised Russell since she was 4 years old, after her mother died. The death had a lasting impact, Lillie Nelson said. She watched Russell struggle to pass the state exams. At Booker T. Washington High, the load was overwhelming, and Russell stopped going.

But on Tuesday, the 19-year-old earned her diploma with the other 15 members of the inaugural graduating class at Norfolk Public Schools Open Campus. The division launched the program this school year for 125 students who had dropped out or fallen behind. "I've been to a lot of graduations, but this one was very emotional and heartfelt," Nelson said. Russell wants to attend Tidewater Community College and become a nurse.

School leaders say the program is the first of its kind in the state. The division has partnered with Magic Johnson Bridgescape and EdisonLearning, which run similar programs throughout the country. The students face a host of challenges. Some are teenage parents; others are homeless or struggle academically. It's possible for them to get a GED, but at Open Campus, they earn a diploma.

Its students take only self-paced, computer-based courses needed to graduate. They also must pass state Standards of Learning exams.

Students attend classes daily at the building near Widgeon and Sewells Point roads, but they earn diplomas from their assigned high schools.

Math teacher Wes Flanagan said the scheduling provides flexibility to focus on academic weaknesses and allows for more teacher-student interaction than in a traditional classroom. Flanagan said the graduation helps dispel myths that dropouts aren't smart or motivated. Some of them have socioeconomic challenges that make a traditional classroom experience difficult, he said.

Daun Hester, the local Open Campus director who's also a state delegate representing Norfolk, handed out diplomas and hugs. She praised the students' hard work and thanked the parents for their support.

L'Tanya Simmons, a division leader who spearheaded the project, told the graduates they have inspired other students by not giving up. "In spite of all the odds and all the doubts, you're graduating," she said. "Receiving a high school diploma is only the beginning of college and career success."

Simmons said staff members worked quickly to open the program within a few weeks of the beginning of the school year. They had to renovate a former school building, hire teachers and install new technology. Now, leaders hope to expand the program.

In her commencement address, salutatorian Claris Turner fought tears while thanking supporters, including her teachers. "They told me I have potential," she said.

Turner said that the program was the best opportunity for her and that she's happy to make her family proud. "This will forever be a memory that I will tell my baby boy. Success is the key," she said. "Ma, I made it!"

http://hamptonroads.com/2015/06/norfolk-schools-open-campus-holds-inaugural-graduation-ceremony