The eight student authors are, from left to right, front row, David McConico, Taylor ‚??Nala‚?Ě Winemiller, Callie Comer and Asia Frey, and back row, Cody Harral, Devante Urbina, Jodeci Thomas and Precious Barnett. The students were considered at risk because they faced personal battles outside school. / Michael Clevenger, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- They've struggled with homelessness, incarceration and the death of loved ones - problems so fierce that some doubted if the eight strong-willed high school seniors from the Academy @ Shawnee would graduate.
But on Saturday, Precious Barnett, Callie Comer, Asia Frey, Cody Harral, David McConico, Jodeci Thomas, Devante Urbina and Taylor "Nala" Winemiller will turn doubters into believers, walking across a stage and receiving their diplomas.
"I didn't even think I would graduate," said Urbina, 18. "I never thought I would be a senior - I thought I would either be dropped out or that I would be incarcerated for an extended period of time."
Not only will Urbina and his seven classmates graduate - they will do so as published authors. During the past year, they wrote about their lives and their neighborhoods in a book titled "Our Shawnee" that was recently released in bookstores, delving into their sometimes painful pasts.
The teens were selected to be part of the Louisville Story Program, an initiative to help Louisvillians tell their life stories. The goal was to give Louisville an opportunity to hear voices that too often aren't heard in the media, said Darcy Thompson, the program's founder.
The Shawnee teens' tales give readers insight into the complex circumstances many local students face well beyond the classroom, said Keith Look, the school's former principal who now works at the Council for Opportunity in Education, based in Washington, D.C.
"They are extraordinarily ordinary," Look said.
More than 60 percent of Jefferson County Public Schools' roughly 100,000 students are poor enough to qualify for government-subsidized lunches, and nearly 13,000 students were considered homeless last year. Shawnee ranks among the bottom 1 percent in the state for test scores, and its students are among the district's most impoverished.
"On the surface, lots of people deal with trauma and difficult situations," Look said. "For many of these kids, it's not just one thing - it's a number of things."
Writing the book was not part of the students' school day - they didn't receive a grade. But they met during the summer and after school during the fall semester, participating in writing workshops, and interviewing friends and family members.
The program paid the students $500 each - an incentive Thompson felt would encourage them to take their responsibility seriously. "Everyone heard $500 and got excited," Barnett said. "I looked at it as a way to help people."
Life's 'dull ache'
At Shawnee Tuesday morning, the teens spoke about their lives.
They talked about struggling through writer's block and self-doubt and the hurdles they've encountered.
"My dad told me I wasn't going to be anything," said Barnett. "My parents have never really been to anything that I've done. They didn't show up for my fifth-grade graduation, which made me skip my middle school graduation because I was terrified they wouldn't show up."
As she looks forward to Saturday's graduation, Barnett said she hopes her parents will be there - just as they were for the book launch May 21.
"I am a little scared, because I don't know who will show up," she said. "But I am going to go. This is the graduation that means the most."
McConico, who has never met his father, described the absence as a "dull ache."
"I never hated my dad for this, nor was I angry at my mother for not telling me more about him; but the love of my father was what I really wanted," McConico wrote.
He also wrote about being picked on because of his weight and getting into fights.
Winemiller initially thought she'd write about depression, but decided to talk about a four-wheeler accident two years ago in which she suffered severe head trauma and memory loss.
"After the accident, I couldn't remember the previous six months," she said. "They had to reteach me almost everything. It was hard. I still have moments where I can't remember things - it's kind of like a black pit."
Comer wrote about growing up with a mother addicted to drugs - and the overdose that ultimately took her life in 2012.
"Up until the day she died, I thought I was going to be just like her," said Comer, who has three younger siblings - two of whom she hasn't seen since shortly after her mother's funeral.
In the book, Comer describes moving from home to home - once being told by a landlord that they had three hours to collect everything they owned and find another place. One winter, the family lived in a house without heat. She recalled times when she said her mother would sell the family's food stamps for pills.
"Whenever I told Mom that we needed to put more money toward groceries, she'd tell me that no family needs $800 a month for food," she wrote. "At the beginning of the month, Mom bought us candy and food and pop, but by the middle of the month we were struggling. By the end of the month, we were almost starving."
Urbina - who grew up in Toledo, Ohio, was part of a gang and spent most of high school in and out of juvenile detention - wrote about living on the streets, getting arrested and drinking and doing drugs, until he and his younger brother eventually found a stable home with foster parents.
"By the time I was 15, I was sick and tired of trying to find a place to sleep every night," he wrote. "I wore borrowed clothes. ... I wore shoes that weren't mine. I was always insecure, because I knew that the person who owned what I was wearing could take it back; anything I needed for basic survival could be snatched away."
'All they do is fight'
Thomas talks about losing her father at 13 and how poor grades forced her to transfer to Shawnee.
"After he passed away, I guess I just wanted to stop doing things because he was gone," she wrote.
People told Thomas there was no hope for her at Shawnee.
"They said the kids who go to that school aren't smart, and that all they do there is fight," she wrote.
Though her start at Shawnee was rough, Thomas says being assigned there was one of the best things for her.
"I began to love it," she said. "The teachers really care about you and have a relationship with you; it's like they have known you your whole life."
On a recent evening, about 400 people packed into a room at the Muhammad Ali Center to celebrate the release of "Our Shawnee."
The eight students, some so nervous they had to do breathing exercises, each stood at a podium and read from their chapters in the book, then posed for pictures and signed autographs.
"The response has been kinda surreal - it caught me off guard," Comer said.
Look, who was recently named superintendent of Danville Schools, said the importance of "Our Shawnee" extends far beyond the pages.
"No matter what else happens in their lives, this is something they can point to as something they did," he said. "That's pretty awesome."
As awesome as the potential they now see for their future.
"I thought one day I would write a book about my life, but I just said that because I was a lot of talk," Urbina said. "I never thought it would ever happen. I was used to failure. But now that it has happened, it makes me think that other things are possible."
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Read the original story: 8 at-risk students turn doubters into believers