ITEM PHOTO BY OWEN O’ROURKE
Janelle Conant cries while talking about her father while giving her statement after receiving the President’s Volunteer Service Award & Student Statements at the Simon Youth Peabody Learning Academy graduation Friday.
BY LEAH DEARBORN
PEABODY — Fifteen students who took the road less traveled to a high school diploma graduated from Simon Youth Peabody Learning Academy on Friday.
The celebration took place at the Northshore Mall, where the school is located.
The academy serves at-risk students with diverse backgrounds from Peabody Veterans Memorial High School.
Students who struggle with traditional high school attend the school for many reasons, including the individual attention afforded by small class sizes. Each graduating class has only 15 students.
The academy is a partner of the Simon Youth Foundation (SYF), an Indiana-based nonprofit whose mission is to help at-risk students who are on the verge of dropping out of high school stay in school. They support more than two dozen alternative schools in a dozen states.
“I can honestly say that if it wasn’t for the academy, I wouldn’t have graduated,” said graduate Erica Novack, who was also named 2016 Student of the Year by the faculty.
Former Peabody Mayor Michael Bonfanti attended the ceremony and credited much of the program’s success to the hard work of Northshore Mall general manager Mark Whiting, noting there’s a strong bond between the school and Simon Property Group, the mall’s owner and one of the largest real estate investment trusts in the country.
Several officials took the stage during the ceremony, including Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt and Sen. Joan B. Lovely (D-Salem) and Superintendent Herbert Levine.
“You guys took an alternative route for whatever reason,” said Levine. “Be an inspiration because you are an inspiration. You’ve achieved something that I never had to worry about achieving.”
Mix 104.1 radio show host Karson Tager acted as keynote speaker at the event, offering a few words of advice for graduates.
“Today I’d like to share eight simple words,” said Tager. “Find passion and success will find you.”
Some of the most moving moments of the ceremony came from the graduates.
Tim Swift spoke at length about how the academy helped him get through school following a severe head injury from a car accident. Suffering from brain trauma and unable to focus on coursework, Swift missed five months of his freshman year of high school.
“The symptoms ruined my life,” he said. “I was seriously contemplating dropping out of school. But I was never going to give up.”
Swift credited the dedication of educators such as school director Seith Bedard with his success.
A number of scholarships were presented by SYF program coordinator Kimb Stewart. Swift received a scholarship from the foundation for the amount of $31,000.
Burton’s Grill also awarded scholarships in varying amounts to four students.
At the end of the ceremony, students stepped forward to receive diploma frames inscribed with a quote from Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.”
“Two roads diverged in a wood,” Frost wrote. “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”