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Features - Posted July 29, 2011 noon
photos by Shannon Richardson

Soaring to Great Heights

Students build self-worth, vital skills with school project

When most parents inquire about their teenager’s day at school, the average response usually includes a series of less-than enthusiastic utterances, so to hear students gush about their love for school and passion for learning is both refreshing and inspirational. What’s even more astounding is that these high school students haven’t always displayed school pride or enthusiasm about their education.

After being court ordered to drop out of high school for poor attendance mere months before they were scheduled to graduate, Lizzy Romero and Kevin McKinney, both 18, found themselves in limbo about how to proceed with their futures. That is, until they walked through the doors of North Heights Alternative School and met with Gina Law.

As director of Diplomas and Certificates (DAC), Gina presents former high school students with an opportunity to return to school and obtain their diplomas. Since its inception two years ago, DAC has helped 43 students graduate.

“At [North Heights], we try to work as a team and mentor the kids and keep them on track,” Gina explains. “That’s a key thing for most of the kids here. Sometimes it’s not just about doing that work, but calling them and keeping them on track and looking forward to the future, not necessarily looking back to things we didn’t do the first time. That’s how we work as team to keep all the kids going.”

Arriving at North Heights in March, Lizzy and Kevin were determined to toss their graduation caps in the air on time. Since they both lacked English credits, Gina enrolled the pair in Mark William’s English class. It was in this particular classroom that Lizzy and Kevin signed up for Amarillo 365, a smartphone app development project. Working on the app fostered an eagerness for learning and diligence they didn’t know they possessed.

“I miss this room,” Kevin sighs as he stares at the photos of smiling students and colorful artwork plastered on the walls.

To miss school, especially a classroom, is not a feeling Kevin acknowledged before enrolling at North Heights. During his last year at Caprock High School, Kevin had not attended class in three months, he says. Lizzy, a fellow Caprock classmate, had not intended to complete her schooling after she was forced to leave.

“I didn’t even plan on finishing high school,” Lizzy admits with unabashed honesty. “I got into a lot of trouble my senior year and ended up getting kicked out of school. After that happened I thought
basically my life was over. I was so mad at myself… and then I got real depressed.”

With the encouragement of her mother, Lizzy scheduled an appointment to meet with Gina to discuss her options. Soon after she enrolled at North Heights, Lizzy took on the role of assistant spring
director of Mr. William’s class project, a smartphone app/travel guide devoted to Amarillo. The venture required students to research and collect information on the city’s attractions, food and lodging by interviewing and collaborating with local businesses. The students were in charge of designing and marketing the app, as well. In September, the class will release the finished product to Sutro Media, a travel guide company specializing in the production of apps, to finalize coding and retail and have it out before Christmas, Mark says. One dollar from every app purchased will go toward a college scholarship for a North Heights’ student.

Already the author of 15 books as well as a fly fishing app, Mark decided developing an app as a class undertaking would present his students with a modern and exciting avenue to research and network
as they would in the real world, and Lizzy and Kevin seemed like the ideal candidates to headline his venture.

“Lizzy and Kevin had been through a non-traditional route and by that I mean they had not found themselves in an academic setting before. They hadn’t been put in positions of leadership, responsibility and so on, but I saw that spark in them,” Mark recalls with a tone of pride. “They’ve got something. I saw this leadership and incrementally they earned it. And after a while they realized they could do it and were even giving me ideas.”

For the first time in her high school career, Lizzy became interested in school work, consumed with Amarillo 365, and wishing she could spend her whole day in Mr. William’s classroom. Unlike Lizzy, Kevin was not initially keen on contributing to the project. However, Lizzy’s undeniable zeal for it convinced him to join. With Kevin on board and with the departure of the spring director, Lizzy was promoted to spring director and Kevin became assistant spring director, forming the ideal team.

“Lizzy and Kevin had certain attributes that I thought worked well with [the project],” Mark says. “Lizzy is a non-stop worker and Kevin is an idea guy. And they’re friends. It just made sense to pair them up because they had such chemistry and they each kind of drove each other. They kind of toyed with each other and they would challenge each other.”

Lizzy attributes much of Amarillo 365’s success to Kevin. “Once Kevin came in, it helped me out a lot,” she humbly declares. “He’s the type of person that can talk to people. It’s really easy for him. With me, I get shy and nervous. And he’ll just be there talking and talking.”

“You guys were a good team because you had that first initial interest and dedication to the project,” Gina reassures as she turns toward Lizzy. “And Kevin had that enthusiasm.”

What began as a class project has transformed into much more for the Amarillo 365 team. As the first high school students in the nation to create a professional app sold through the iTunes store, Lizzy and Kevin have a vested interest in this assignment and have gained support from area businesses and organizations. Big Texan Steak Ranch co-owner, Bobby Lee, says he saw the value of the product and will advertise Amarillo 365 on the restaurant’s placemats and infamous “Free 72 oz. Steak” billboards seen on I-40. He also offered Kevin a summer internship working at the Big Texan.

“It was the enthusiasm of the kids and their teacher that impressed me,” Bobby says, “and the fact that they actually have the nerve to delve into the t-word: tourism.”

Lizzy and Kevin were quickly exposed to the business world when they met with Bobby Lee. Lizzy confesses she was quite shaky but walked away feeling confident. The two also sought advice from Eric Miller of the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce, who will allow them to use the Chamber of Commerce logo and images for the app.

“They were very sharp young people,” Eric says of his meeting with Lizzy and Kevin. “I was very impressed with all the background work they had done… I’m looking forward to being re-contacted and working with them in the fall.”

With Eric’s help, the Amarillo 365 team attended National Tourism Day at the Texas Convention Center and connected with the community’s businesspeople.

“All of them [at the convention] wanted to talk to me and Kevin,” Lizzy recalls with surprise. “Sooner or later, they were all coming up and asking us what they could do and how they could be a part of it. It was really cool because instead of us wanting them, they actually wanted us.”

In addition to graduating from high school, Lizzy and Kevin plan to attend Amarillo College in the fall. They were awarded $1,000 scholarships from North Heights. Provided by Gwen and Don Maroney, the self-sustaining scholarships will help Lizzy become a nurse and assist Kevin in his pursuit of a music degree.

“We have high expectations for these kids,” Mark says of North Heights students. “These are kids who aren’t going to be your straight-A students, who haven’t typically had a lot of success in school. When you give them a chance to lead and a chance to fail and recognize that failure and realize it’s OK to fail, they do amazing things. I’m a total believer in this generation. It’s just that we don’t understand them.”
However, it’s not just about earning those pieces of paper for Lizzy and Kevin. They’ve built self-esteem and discovered what they’re capable of achieving in and out of the classroom.

“I’m so proud of Kevin and Lizzy,” Mark exclaims. “They’ve exceeded everybody else’s expectations,
but more importantly, they’ve exceeded their own expectations.”

Lizzy credits her mentors at North Heights and the skills she acquired working on Amarillo 365 with her growth, both mentally and physically.

“[North Heights] gave me a lot of hope,” Lizzy states with gratitude, “especially Ms. Law and Mr. Williams. Not only are they teachers, but they inspired me to do a lot with my life. Just because I messed up in the past doesn’t mean I can’t make something out of myself in the future. I should have learned that a long time ago, but I didn’t learn it until now. But I’m glad I learned it because it changed me as a person and I grew up a lot over here. Even just the little time I was here I learned a lot about myself and the world out there.”

Lizzy and Kevin would even work on the app at home, anxiously awaiting their arrival at school the next day to show Mr. Williams their findings.

“Here, we couldn’t wait to go to school. It was the whole atmosphere, it just made you want to be here,” Lizzy says. “It was like a new adventure every day,” Kevin adds.

Now, more and more teenagers want to become a part of that adventure, thanks to the success of Lizzy and Kevin. Gina has already had requests from teenagers to enroll at North Heights and become a part of Amarillo 365’s development, which will continue into the fall.

“We actually encourage a lot of friends to come back to school, “Lizzy says. “Not just our friends but our classmates from our senior year who were dropping out or getting kicked out.”

Even though Lizzy and Kevin graduated in May, they will still visit the place that believed in them and the mentors that pushed them to strive.

“It’s crazy. I got kicked out of school and graduated,” Kevin shouts. “Come on.”

The two plan on visiting North Heights this month to advise Mr. William’s new students on the ins and outs of the app.

“I know I’m going to be coming back to North Heights,” Kevin proclaims as he nods his head with certainty. “When we were here, people who graduated years ago would still come in and show their love to North Heights. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

by Drew Belle Zerby

After graduating from LSU in 2009, Drew Belle worked as a page designer in north Louisiana until moving to Amarillo and joining AGN Media in late 2010. In her spare time, she loves to read, travel and spout out useless movie trivia.
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