Graduating despite the odds

Published July 29, 2014: Often, students define themselves by their surroundings, which is why mentors can make the difference between success and failure. Learn how one student serves as a leader in her Detroit community.

Video by Charles Ashley. Story by Valerie West

Peer pressure isn't uncommon during high school, but choosing the people we associate with during those four years can define who we will become later in life. For some students, it can make all the difference between success and failure.

I was lucky enough to meet Donniqua, a recent graduate of Cody Academy of Public Leadership. Dressed in her Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) uniform, Donniqua opened up to me about the pressures she faced growing up. As I started to record her story, Donniqua's enthusiasm began to pour out of her. So much so, that my co-worker Charles had to keep asking her to slow down so we could capture her audio. New Yorker's have nothing on Donniqua when it comes to speed. 

As she began to tell us about the peer pressure she faced in her own home, it quickly became evident why she was so excited. I would be excited too if I had overcome so many obstacles growing up.

Donniqua served as a member of the JROTC during high school

Donniqua came from a family where both parents worked multiple jobs, day and night. As a result, she was raised primarily by her older brothers. Donniqua was a good student, but her brothers focused only on preparing her for the “tough life” that they were so sure awaited her. They could not envision a better life for Donniqua or for themselves. 

“They taught me to be real,” she said.  “They didn’t hide anything from me.  Guns, drugs, I saw it all.  By the time I was in seventh grade, I had street smarts.”

Donniqua didn't tell any of this in a way to disparage or glorify her family. It is what it is. She loves her brothers and said she understands why they shared their lifestyle with her.

“My brothers wanted to toughen me up, because they knew they wouldn’t always be around,” she said, adding that many times, they forced her into fights they orchestrated.

It wasn’t until she came to Cody, a United Way Turnaround School, that she decided to find out what she wanted. She made a good friend, whom she wanted to emulate and she began taking on leadership roles, such as joining the Detroit Youth Violence Prevention Initiative and the JROTC. She also formed relationships with teachers like Ondrai Staley, who motivated and challenged her in a positive way.

Whether they want to be or not, teachers are serving as role models for students, he told me. Many of his students come from unstable homes, but that isn't a reason for them to slack off on work in his class. 

“You used to have 'The Cosby Show' as a facsimile of how families functioned,” he said. “Now you have 'Basketball Wives' and 'Jerseylicious' — the ‘bleep network. As teachers, we are trying to be the ‘new sitcom,’ setting a better example.”

Setting a better example is just one of the things that Turnaround Schools do. By breaking larger schools into smaller academies, Turnaround Schools enable students to form deeper relationships with teachers and staff members. Students also go to classes with the same group of students, which creates a nurturing environment. 

Donniqua knows that teachers like Mr. Staley have pushed her to excel. “I look up to all of my teachers,” Donniqua said. “Mr. Staley took me outside of my box. If we used a word, he’d ask, ‘What’s the definition? Now use a synonym.’ ”

She took her newfound can-do attitude to other students, serving as a positive role model to underclassmen. In the JROTC, she led drills and took part in color guard. She said her role was to help teach respect, responsibility and discipline. I had to make sure they got to class on time, which meant I had to get there five minutes before them.

Donniqua celebrates her high school graduation with her mom.

A few months after my initial meeting with Donniqua, I saw a video of her crossing the stage and receiving her diploma. She graduated as class valedictorian and was awarded a full scholarship to Michigan State University. I can't forget her smile when she told me she wants to be "Detroit's hero."

Turnaround schools don't just promote teachers as good role models. They make future ones like Donniqua.