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A graduation victory for this band of brothers

Lowell — Students at Unity High School are well aware that some of their classmates will not finish the program.

“The dropout rate here is bad,” said Shelby Weston, a fifth-year senior at Unity, Lowell’s alternative high school. The program serves students who are credit-deficient or for whom the traditional high school experience is not a good fit, helping them earn a high school diploma. 

“I gotta agree with Shelby — the dropout rate here is kind of sad, to be honest,” said fellow fifth-year senior Zeke Johnson. “I think that’s mostly because a lot of people don’t want to put forth the effort.” 

But Zeke was willing to put in that effort. So was Shelby, and their classmates Austin Meyers and Jackson Andrews as well. And as their years at Unity went on, as a pandemic disrupted classes and as they watched others give up on the program, the four teens forged a bond. As long as one of them was going to graduate, they were determined that all of them were going to graduate. 

This spring, that’s exactly what they did.

“During the time when we were at ‘real school,’ our group never really hung out with each other; we never really got to know each other on a personal level,” Zeke said. “But it’s like, once we came here, we realized that we’re all in the same boat and we all need to work together to be able to reach our final goal. We knew that there’s a chance that all of us could come out with a diploma.” 

Unity lead teacher Sue Sweet fondly calls the foursome the “band of brothers.” She remembers having a gut feeling, early on, that the group was going to make it. 

“I see them have so much respect for each other, because they know where they’re coming from,” she said. “Especially being fifth-year students, they stuck it out. And I’m so proud of the ones that do, because that is hard — it’s hard to keep going when all of your friends have graduated or moved on in other ways. 

I knew they could do it, but I’m so glad they realized they could do it, and do it together.”

A board in the classroom at Unity marks classes each student completes and celebrates when they graduate from the program (note: since this picture was taken, Shelby Weston also completed his coursework)

‘We All Knew What We Wanted’

As an alternative education program, Unity’s classes allow students to work at their own pace to meet their own personal requirements for graduation. They do the work online but on a computer in the building’s main classroom. For both accountability and encouragement purposes, Sweet keeps track of the classes every student completes by noting them on a board in the classroom.

This visual helped the students keep track of their own classes, and it helped the foursome keep tabs on what the others were working on, too. They were able to give advice or offer tips on assignments they’d already worked on. 

“When one was stuck on a class that one of us had already finished, we could help each other, share notes and share different ways of learning,” Jackson said. “The best part of going through Unity with these guys was the maturity and attitude these guys came in with every day. We all knew what we wanted and how to help each other get there.” 

The four also established a group text thread and used it often for motivation or just to check in. 

“We text each other and make sure they’re not, like, slacking off or asleep or something,” Shelby said. “Or, like, if someone else (at Unity) dropped out or wasn’t there (in class), we text each other to be like, ‘You’re not dropping, right? You’re staying in?’ We just always check up on each other. It’s good to know that you can have people you can text, basically, whenever.”

When the pandemic hit and threw off everyone’s schedule, having those relationships already established played a big role in keeping the teens enrolled.

“I actually almost didn’t even come back this year, but I wanted to be with my friends,” Austin said. “We could message each other even when we were staying home.”

In fact, Sweet even calls the pandemic “a huge blessing” when it came to the instructional situation for Shelby, Austin, Jackson and Zeke. In order to maintain social distancing in the one-classroom setting, half of her students stayed home for remote learning and half returned to Unity to do their work. This allowed for a quieter in-person learning experience for the foursome and gave them more leeway to ask questions and help each other out without distracting others. 

“I know all four of them told me at some point in the year, if all 20 students had been in the room it would have been really noisy and frustrating for them,” Sweet said. “I think (social distancing) gave them a more calming atmosphere for learning. And they were allowed to help each other more, too, which I don’t always do. … I told them, ‘You tell me what you need, and I’ll work hard as long as you work hard.’”

Shelby Weston works on an assignment for his last class at Unity

A Real Family

Zeke said the foursome consider themselves a family, with Austin noting that Sweet plays the role of “a second mom” to the group.

“Honestly, for how much all of us have stuck by each other, side by side, I would personally look at this as probably the biggest family we’ve ever had,” Zeke said. “Real family is the ones that will stick by you, even at your difficult times, because they know what your goal is, like graduating, and they will get you to that goal.”

As the third trimester started this spring, the band of brothers started counting down the number of classes each had left. 

“I watched them cheerleading each other, and I think they each finished with more confidence than what they would have had otherwise,” Sweet said. “I can see where finishing up those last two or three classes maybe wouldn’t have happened, or definitely would have been more difficult, if they didn’t have each other there to say, ‘Hey, keep going. You’re going to do this. You’re the next one to finish.’

“I’m just so proud of them — they made this whole year worthwhile.”

Within the group, Jackson was the first to finish and earn his diploma. He’s already started a job working in concrete and says he’s loving the work. Zeke graduated next; he plans to take part of the summer off and then start working for his father as a Hi Lo driver. 

Graduating third was Austin; he plans to look for a trade school and possibly pursue work as an electrician. And rounding out the four graduates, Shelby will be working this summer to save up some money; in the fall he plans to start at a trade school for welding. 

All four said they felt graduating was never a guarantee, which makes their joint success all the more special.

“When I came here I had eight classes to do, and I personally thought I wasn’t going to make it,” Zeke said. “But with the help of Austin and Shelby and Jackson, and the positive motivation that I got from them, it was really something to keep me pushing.

“I feel like a lot of stress is off my back now, and I feel really accomplished.”

Austin says he has a lot of gratitude for his pseudo-brothers: “They mean a lot, because, like, they helped me with one of the biggest goals of my life so far.”

Austin Meyers, left, and Shelby Weston work on assignments in the Unity classroom
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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter and copy editor, covering Cedar Springs, Godfrey-Lee, Grandville and Lowell. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to her alma mater to help manage its national writing festival and edit and write for enrollment communications. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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