It didn’t take long after he enrolled at West Charlotte High for the trouble to begin. Antonio Wilson’s new group of friends liked to leave campus and skip class – so he did, too.
Both of his parents work, so Wilson only got caught if a security camera captured footage of him sneaking away.
It went on for the whole school year. He was failing all of his classes when an administrator from the school came by his house to tell him about a new program that helps students like him catch up on their work and get back on track to graduate.
The surprise visit caught him at the right moment.
“It was a miracle,” said Wilson, who is now 18. “It was a point in time that I wanted to grow up.”
That knock on the door helped turn Antonio Wilson from a class-cutting teenager at West Charlotte High into a leader preparing to walk across the stage – on time.
He’ll graduate alongside his West Charlotte High peers in a Friday morning ceremony that kicks off five days of exercises for about two dozen high schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools district.
Wilson will be among the first classes of graduates at the LIFT Academy, West Charlotte’s attempt to bring students back from the brink of dropping out. Both Wilson and his school are emblematic of efforts that have boosted the West Charlotte High’s graduation rate by 40 percent in only two years.
The academy primarily focuses on seniors but has since branched out to earlier grades. Students there progress through their coursework in computer programs, aided by teachers when needed.
Even when he started at the LIFT Academy, it was hard to get Wilson to sit and focus on his work. Now he is the one standing in the hallway telling people milling about in the halls to get to class.
“You would think he works for the school,” said Raukell Robinson, academic coordinator and counselor at the LIFT Academy.
“He’s a leader, but a quiet leader,” said dean of instruction Kristin Ward. “He leads by doing.”
Evolving and growing
The school’s name comes from Project LIFT, a $55 million public-private partnership that aims to help West Charlotte High and its feeder schools. This is the third year in a five-year commitment.
It was originally housed on West Charlotte High’s campus. It later moved to a community center 6 miles away off West Boulevard. Students who didn’t do well at the traditional campus, home to nearly 1,800 students, have a chance to work in a smaller environment with more supervision.
Students there are technically still enrolled at West Charlotte High but have a separate teaching staff and academic path.
Some have children themselves. Some have been through the court system. Some are homeless. Some just got involved with the wrong people.
“It’s easy to fall in with the crowd, because at the moment it’s something to do. It’s somewhere to belong,” Robinson said. “Sometimes being removed from some of those peers lets you be who you really are inside.”
The LIFT Academy is designed to minimize distractions. It’s open 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. or later, to give students who have jobs an opportunity to squeeze in class.
“There’s nothing else to think about except what we’re focused on,” said Timisha Barnes-Jones, co-principal at West Charlotte. “We don’t give them the opportunity to think about anything except their success and meeting their goals.”
It’s already gotten results.
About 70 students have graduated from its ranks so far. This year’s class will bring it past 120. That has had a marked impact on West Charlotte’s graduation rate.
In 2012, West Charlotte’s graduation rate stood at a dismal 56 percent. A year later, after the LIFT Academy was introduced, that jumped to 71 percent. In 2014, the rate hit 78 percent. The overall CMS graduation rate hit 85.2 percent last year.
Barnes-Jones said LIFT Academy graduates make up about 10 percent of West Charlotte’s graduating class – and the number is growing.
Off the path
Wilson started his CMS career at Thomasboro Elementary before moving on to Bishop Spaugh Community Academy for middle school. When Spaugh shut down in 2011 as the recession ravaged the district’s budget, he shifted to Sedgefield Middle.
He spent his freshman year at Harding University High before he, his parents and four siblings moved across town closer to West Charlotte High, where he says he made friends with people not focused on academics. A month into his sophomore year, he joined them in leaving campus.
“I got used to it. I saw other people doing it, and it just looked easy,” Wilson said. “I wanted to get in, too.”
He said his parents didn’t know he was skipping most of the time. When he got caught, his mother was distraught.
“I had to make a decision, either hurt my mom or do right,” Wilson said.
When he started at the LIFT Academy, he had to re-do his 10th grade classes before moving on. But he soon found classes that he loved. His favorite was “Principles of Business,” where he learned about taxes, preparing to buy a house or car, and living on your own.
In April, Wilson went on a class field trip to Washington, D.C. – his first time outside of Charlotte.
He says he still speaks with some of those friends from West Charlotte. Just not during school hours.
Wilson says he’ll start looking for a job after graduation, hopefully something involving cars. He ultimately hopes to take automotive classes at Central Piedmont Community College and one day own his own repair shop.
“It’s shocking to me, really. I really thought I was going to be a dropout, for real,” Wilson said. “I feel like I’m on the right track now.”
About this series
The Observer asked readers and school leaders for suggestions of standout graduates. Today, we begin our series about students who illustrate a range of accomplishments, including some who overcame significant obstacles.
High school graduations
Waxhaw South Providence – 6 p.m., campus.
Sun Valley – 9 a.m., Cabarrus Arena.
Weddington – 10 a.m., Winthrop Coliseum.
Unionville Piedmont – 12:30 p.m., Cabarrus Arena.
Central Academy (Monroe) – 3 p.m., Winthrop Coliseum.
Porter Ridge – 4 p.m., Cabarrus Arena.
Bandys – 7 p.m., Catawba Valley Community College.
East Lincoln – 7 p.m., football stadium.
Lenoir Hibriten – 7 p.m., campus.
South Caldwell – 7 p.m., campus.
Waxhaw Cuthbertson – 7 p.m., Winthrop Coliseum.
West Caldwell – 7 p.m., campus.
West Lincoln – 7 p.m., football stadium.
East Burke – 7:30 p.m., campus.
Morganton Patton – 7:30 p.m., campus.
West Charlotte – 8:30 a.m., Bojangles’ Coliseum.
Performance Learning Center – 9 a.m., Ovens Auditorium.
Phillip O. Berry Academy – noon, Bojangles’ Coliseum.
Cochrane Collegiate Academy – 12:30 p.m., Ovens Auditorium.
Providence – 3:30 p.m., Bojangles’ Coliseum.
Marie G. Davis Military and Global Leadership Academy – 4 p.m., Ovens Auditorium.
Mallard Creek – 7 p.m. Bojangles’ Coliseum.
Monroe – 9 a.m., Wingate University’s Austin Auditorium.
Cabarrus Performance Learning Center – 9 a.m., campus.
Marvin Ridge – 10 a.m., Winthrop Coliseum.
Northwest Cabarrus – 12:30 p.m., Cabarrus Arena.
Monroe Parkwood – 2 p.m., Winthrop University’s Byrnes Auditorium.
Monticello and Pressly (Statesville) – 2 p.m., campus.
Concord – 4 p.m., Cabarrus Arena.
Maiden – 4 p.m., Catawba Valley Community College.
Lincolnton – 7 p.m., gym.
North Lincoln – 7 p.m., football stadium.
Central Cabarrus – 7:30 p.m., Cabarrus Arena.
Morganton Freedom – 7:30 p.m., campus.
Valdese Draughn – 7:30 p.m., campus.
Bunker Hill – 8 p.m., Catawba Valley Community College.
Hickory – 8 p.m., football stadium.
North Mecklenburg – 12:30 p.m., UNC Charlotte’s Halton Arena.
Rocky River – 12:30 p.m., Bojangles’ Coliseum.
Vance – 4 p.m., Bojangles’ Coliseum.
Hopewell – 4:30 p.m., UNC Charlotte’s Halton Arena.
Butler – 7:30 p.m., Bojangles’ Coliseum.
East Rowan – 8 a.m., campus.
North Rowan – 8 a.m., campus.
Salisbury Henderson Independent School – 8 a.m., campus.
South Rowan – 8 a.m., campus.
West Rowan – 8 a.m., campus.
Lake Norman – 8:30 a.m., campus.
North Iredell – 8:30 a.m. campus.
South Iredell – 8:30 a.m., campus.
Statesville – 8:30 a.m., campus.
West Iredell – 8:30 a.m. campus.
Ashbrook – 9 a.m., campus.
Bessemer City – 9 a.m., campus.
Cherryville – 9 a.m., campus.
Cox Mill – 9 a.m., Cabarrus Arena.
East Gaston – 9 a.m., campus.
Forestview – 9 a.m., campus.
Gastonia Hunter Huss – 9 a.m., campus.
North Gaston – 9 a.m., campus.
South Point – 9 a.m., campus.
West Stanly – 9 a.m., Stanly County Agri-Civic Center.
China Grove Carson – 10 a.m., campus.
Fred T. Foard – 10 a.m., Catawba Valley Community College.
Watauga – 10 a.m., Holmes Convocation Center (Appalachian State Univ.)
Gastonia Highland Tech – 11 a.m., gym.
Hickory Ridge – 12:30 p.m., Cabarrus Arena.
South Stanly – 1 p.m., Stanly County Agri-Civic Center.
Albemarle – 4 p.m., Stanly County Agri-Civic Center.
Jay M. Robinson – 4 p.m., Cabarrus Arena.
Salisbury – 4 p.m., Livingstone College auditorium.
St. Stephens – 7 p.m., Catawba Valley Community College.
Mount Pleasant – 7:30 p.m., Cabarrus Arena.
North Stanly – 8 p.m., Stanly County Agri-Civic Center.
Ardrey Kell – 2 p.m., Bojangles’ Coliseum.
Northwest School of the Arts – 2:30 p.m., Ovens Auditorium.
South Mecklenburg – 5:30 p.m., Bojangles’ Coliseum.
Hawthorne and Lincoln Heights Academy – 6 p.m., Ovens Auditorium.
Garinger – 8:30 a.m., Bojangles’ Coliseum.
Olympic – noon, Bojangles’ Coliseum.
Independence – 3:30 p.m., Bojangles’ Coliseum.
Hough – 4 p.m., Time Warner Cable Arena.
Myers Park – 7:30 p.m. Time Warner Cable Arena.
East Mecklenburg – 8:30 a.m., Bojangles’ Coliseum.
West Mecklenburg – noon, Bojangles’ Coliseum.
Harding University – 3:30 p.m., Bojangles’ Coliseum.
Compiled by Steve Lyttle