Mikayla Koweh, graduate from Norcross High School, smiles after she received her diploma during 2019 Gwinnett County Public Schools summer school graduation at Infinite Energy Arena on Wednesday, July 3, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

Diploma, new direction come in July for 400-plus Gwinnett grads

It was early spring when Mikayla Koweh found out she wouldn’t be graduating with her class.

“I was ready to just give up,” she said. “I couldn’t face not walking with friends I’ve known since kindergarten.”

She, like 400-plus Gwinnett County students, extended the school year through summer studies and graduated Wednesday morning at the Infinite Energy Arena. Although several other metro Atlanta school districts offer summer graduation ceremonies, Gwinnett’s is perhaps the earliest.

The Norcross High student almost missed the ceremony. But when the assistant principal for ninth-grade students heard that Koweh was struggling, she talked to her about getting back on track.

“She’s such a gifted and talented young lady and when she said she’d just drop out and get her GED, I wasn’t having that,” said Tracey Mason.

About 30 percent of high school dropouts eventually get their GED, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The others face possible low wages, poor health and sub-par quality of life. While Koweh was still a student, Mason didn’t want to see her hard work up to that point be for naught.

“When I call them my students, my husband jokes that I’m not a teacher anymore, but as an administrator every child at Norcross High is mine,” she said. “I care about their success even past high school.”

It’s that tough love and some determination of her own that pushed Koweh to buckle down and get to where she only needed one class to graduate.

“I failed 11th-grade physics and then tried to take it through credit recovery online and failed it again,” she said.

This summer she attended what Gwinnett calls “face-to-face” summer school and passed.

“We start right after the regular school year ends,” said Steve Flynt, assistant superintendent for school improvement and operations. “It keeps the momentum going and continues the tradition of striving for excellence.”

About 85% of Gwinnett’s summer school graduates go on to college or some other post-secondary education, he added.

Even though illness and other factors had Jahad Jordan missing so many days that he couldn’t catch up, summer school helped him keep his plan of majoring in neuroscience at Westfield State University in Massachusetts.

“I failed AP environmental science,” he said. “It was the first class I ever failed.”

The Norcross High grad said he’s grateful for the opportunity to still be part of the class of 2019. According to the Georgia Department of Education, all summer graduates are considered part of that year’s class.

“It doesn’t affect the graduation rate because the four-year adjusted cohort rate includes four years and a summer,” said Meghan Frick, a DOE spokeswoman. “So, those students who graduate in the summer are included.”

In her remarks to the graduates, Gwinnett Board of Education President Mary Kay Murphy congratulated the students for their perseverance.

“You are part of the largest summer school graduating class to date,” she said.

As she received hugs and praise, Koweh said she realized this was just as special as the May graduations — maybe a bit better. It was at the same place as everyone else, all her family and friends could attend because there were no tickets required, and the cheers and tears were just as heartfelt.

“I’m glad I decided to do this,” she said. “At first I was just going to take the classes and not walk, but I got to know my summer school classmates and built a bond with them.”

She plans to attend Georgia State University and live on campus. She beamed as she realized the five-week hold on her future was just a small blip in time.

As the sea of gowns representing all 22 of Gwinnett County’s high schools flowed through the arena, Koweh offered advice for anyone who might find themselves in a predicament like hers:

“Summer school really opened my eyes to the person I am,” she said. “Don’t give up. Finish what you started even if it takes more time than you thought it should.”

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