At 16, Tyrell Williams made a lot of what he now calls bad choices.
He dropped out of high school and started getting into trouble.
Then things got worse when he was charged with assault after an incident in a store (the charge was dropped).
It was just like a wake-up call, said Williams, a lanky, soft-spoken 19-year-old.
After that, Williams said he started to realize hed made some mistakes. And hes changed: He has done a tremendous 360, said his aunt, Tasha West.
He graduated Saturday from West Charlotte High School after squeezing in two years of high school into one.
Sitting with his high school counselor, Raukell Robinson, at West Charlotte High a few days before his graduation, Williams talked about his turnaround.
You werent really about that life after that (assault charge), were you? Robinson asked him.
Williams flashed a shy smile and shook his head. No.
He had been living with his grandparents when he dropped out of Shelby High School just after 11th grade started in 2011. He left school to work in a warehouse moving boxes and hang out with friends.
By the beginning of 2012, he moved in with his aunt, Tasha West, resolved to straighten out.
But his aunt had to keep him in line at the beginning. She said the toughest part of Williams joining her household was adjusting to house rules.
Williams enrolled at West Charlotte High for what was supposed to be the end of his junior year. He struggled. So many times he was getting suspended and flunking school and just didnt want to do it, West said.
Williams said she was a constant support and advocate for his education. She tells me to work hard, he said.
Before what should have been his senior year of high school, he and West met with people from Project LIFT Academy. They told him if he worked hard, he could graduate on time in 2012.
That was bells to his ears, West said. And mine too.
Project LIFT (Leadership and Investment for Transformation) helps fund projects at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to help improve outcomes at West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools. The Academy works with students to recover school credits and graduate on time.
West said once Williams started taking classes at West Charlotte through the Project LIFT Academy, she didnt have to help him with homework anymore.
I was all hands off, she said. The only thing I did was provide him with a nice healthy home and stable environment.
At that point, Williams became determined to complete two years worth of classes in one to graduate on time. Three days a week, his school day began at 7:15 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m.
Its what I had to do, he said. Everybody else was working and going to school, and thats what I had to do.
West, who works for the city, had her nephew meet with Mayor Anthony Foxx, who is also a West Charlotte grad.
She said Foxx told him to keep persevering, and that Williams immediately seemed to take his message to heart.
When we walked out of the building, I saw a new man walking out, she said. The mayor gave his walk a little swag to it.
His counselor, Robinson, said she saw a big difference in him when he started studying through the LIFT Academy.
Hes actually blossomed, she said. If he keeps on this path, hell be able to make a difference in his family and community.
Alexander Macaulay, Williams math teacher, said he was proud of him.
He was always one of our most reliable students in terms of attendance and work ethic, he said, noting that getting to class at 7:15 a.m. is usually a chore for most teens. Hes been exemplary in his consistency and commitment to getting things done.
His aunt is proud too, mentioning he made the honor roll twice this year. From straight Fs to As and Bs, Im just ecstatic and super proud of him, she said.
Williams is still exploring his higher-education options. Hes considering attending CPCC, particularly because he can participate in the Anthony Foxx Scholar Program, which offers $1,000 scholarships to black men who graduated from West Charlotte. Hed like to study business.
After two years at a community college, hes also considering going to a four-year college to play basketball. Another option hes interested in is the Carolina School of Broadcast in Charlotte, because he enjoyed making a video this year for his English class.
Williams said he has nothing but gratitude for everything his aunt has done for him.
And after all the hours of classes and studying, the biggest lesson Williams learned this year?
Just work hard, and you can be successful.
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