Graduation is a time when all the hard work pays off. Every 2021 graduate has overcome challenges, but perhaps no one has overcome more than Carver STEAM Academy’s Shadonna Newsom.
Shadonna is a student in Carver STEAM’s special education program, “Team Excel.” When Purpose Built Schools Atlanta took over the operation of Carver High School in 2018–transforming it into Carver STEAM Academy–Shadonna was 18 years old but only had three completed credits to her name.
At the time, it was difficult to see a path forward to graduation. With physical and intellectual disabilities making school more challenging for her, Shadonna was in an impossible situation: stuck in a chronically failing school system that had neglected her needs with students who bullied her.
“Shadonna had always struggled in school, but by the time she got to high school it was really bad,” says Diane Newsom, Shadonna’s mother. Born premature, Shadonna was adopted at 7 months old and had several health issues, both physical and mental. She was teased and bullied because of her disabilities.
“When I found out about Purpose Built Schools and the new special education program, I immediately met with the teachers and they were so committed to figuring out the problem, making it right, and setting a plan in motion,” says her mother.
Purpose Built Schools partnered with APS to turn the school around in 2018. Carver principal Yusuf Muhammad and special education coordinator Tianna Knight hired Dr. Kimberly Clark to overhaul the special education program, who subsequently hired Ms. Michelle Coleman. They renamed the program Team Excel to overcome the stigma of special education and reflect the positive trajectory of students.
Together with Shadonna and her mom, Team Excel and school counselor Gloria Hines created an intensive action plan for Shadonna to defy all odds: go from just three credits to a high school diploma.
“We put together an aggressive approach and identified a plan of action ASAP,” says Dr. Clark. “The team’s collaborative approach allowed them to identify and hone in on exactly what Shadonna needed. It wasn’t always easy, and there were lots of hurdles along the way. She’s been so motivated to reach her goals.”
Eventually Shadonna got more engaged in school. She was eligible for Hospital/Homebound Instruction, which is designed to provide continuity of educational services between the classroom and home for students whose medical needs—either physical or psychiatric–do not allow them to attend school for a limited period of time.
“I never thought she’d catch up, she was so far behind. Carver STEAM was my only hope and salvation,” says Shadonna’s mother. “You know the saying it takes a village? Well, it truly took the whole village, but they did it. They are angels.”
“Shadonna is someone who will take charge and she’s so good with people,” says Ms. Coleman. “I’ve seen her grow so much. She’s been totally focused on her end goal, which is graduating. Shadonna would work even when she wasn’t feeling well. She wanted to graduate so badly and she never gave up. She’s a survivor.”
This May, Shadonna will achieve her goal. She will walk across the stage at Atlanta Public Schools’ graduation ceremony as a member of the class of 2021, achieving her biggest dream. Just three years ago, this felt like an unachievable goal.
“Seeing the way they worked with Shadonna and how committed they were was unlike anything I could have ever imagined. They saved her,” says her mother. “I can’t put into words how much I appreciate what this school and these teachers have done for Shadonna. I never thought I’d see this day come.”
Shadonna’s story is a powerful reminder that even the longest, hardest journeys can have a happy ending.
“After graduation I’d love to start my own business locally and help people, especially children,” says Shadonna. “I want to give back to my community. The best thing about Carver is the way everyone helped me.”