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Alternative school hosts career fair

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Z’nia Pittman, 12, left, and Cpl. Timothy Pope share a laugh after Z’nia tries on a bullet proof vest Wednesday during Career Day at Tar River Academy.

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BY AMELIA HARPER
Staff Writer

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Stu­dents at Tar River Academy looked to the fu­ture on Wed­nes­day as they spoke with po­ten­tial em­ploy­ers, military re­cruiters and col­lege rep­re­sen­ta­tives during Ca­reer Day at the school.

Help­ing these stu­dents pre­pare for the fu­ture is the goal of Tar River Academy, the only al­ter­na­tive school in the Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools dis­trict. But this is not a typ­i­cal al­ter­na­tive school, which merely acts as a “hold­ing cell” for trou­bled stu­dents and those that face spe­cial chal­lenges in their lives, Prin­ci­pal Wil­lie Howard III said.

“This is a place of sec­ond, third and fourth chances,” Howard said in an in­ter­view on Wed­nes­day.

This is the first year as prin­ci­pal for Howard, who has served as the prin­ci­pal of other al­ter­na­tive schools in places like Union County Public Schools, where he last was em­ployed.

“The other schools where I served were sim­i­lar but not the same,” Howard said. “This is some­thing spe­cial here. It is two schools in one. We have a mid­dle school for grades six through eight and a high school. But the high school is set up in a way that the kids who we ac­cept here only need 22 cred­its to grad­u­ate in­stead of 28. This is part of the phi­los­o­phy of this school dis­trict. We want to see kids be able to grab that diploma and most of our ju­niors and se­niors want to grad­u­ate.”

Find­ing a way to ac­cel­er­ate that process is im­por­tant to these stu­dents, who have had set­backs in the past. Some have crim­i­nal records and about 10 per­cent of them al­ready are par­ents them­selves. Some al­ready have jobs as they are liv­ing on their own with no one to care for them. Some are 21 years old.

Many of their sto­ries are heartbreak­ing, Howard said.

“When you hear some of their sto­ries, you have to be in­hu­man not to care,” he said. “Some days you still see the residue of what they have gone through in the past.”

The school has about 95 stu­dents, though the num­bers vary be­cause of the tran­sient na­ture of the school pop­u­la­tion. The school has a low stu­dent-to-teacher ra­tio and plenty of sup­port staff in the form of coun­selors, so­cial work­ers and be­hav­ior­ists to help with the stu­dents in the school. The school also of­fers a “U-Turn” pro­gram that pro­vides strong in­ter­ven­tions and men­tor­ing to help stu­dents find their way and stay in school long enough to earn their diploma.

The school’s mas­cot is the phoenix and the sym­bol­ism is ob­vi­ous and pro­found. One of the bul­letin boards at the school bears a quo­ta­tion by Anne Bax­ter: “It’s best to have fail­ure hap­pen early in life. It wakes up the phoenix bird in­side you so you rise from the ashes.”

Another board at the school has the words “Still I Rise” across it. On that board are sev­eral anony­mous sto­ries writ­ten by stu­dents at the school that share an ob­sta­cle they have over­come. Some took wrong turns in their early teens by join­ing gangs or sell­ing drugs so they did not have to be de­pen­dent on their par­ents. Some were preg­nant in their early teens and some al­ready have lost ba­bies. Others have over­come long bouts of de­pres­sion or ill health that set them back from achiev­ing their dreams at the same pace as their peers.

But many of them show ev­i­dence of that phoenix ris­ing in­side them.

A young woman re­counted the story of her cir­cum­stances and the wrong choices she had made and then con­cluded, “Don’t get me wrong. I still have a lot of grow­ing to do, but I’m go­ing to take it day by day. I am proud to say I love the young, in­de­pen­dent woman I am be­com­ing.”

Other stu­dents shared the chal­lenges they still face.

One stu­dent whose fa­ther got in trou­ble with the law and was de­ported wrote, “Since then I had to take care of my lil brother and sis­ter as my own. I usu­ally buy my lil brother school shoes and some­times take him out to eat cause I know my dad is not here any­more and he would want me to look over them.”

Others of­fered wise ad­vice to their fel­low stu­dents.

“If I can say any words it would be choose the peo­ple you wanna be friends with and ac­tu­ally have some­one you wanna trust and open up to — Choose the peo­ple you hang around wisely,” she said.

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