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covenant house graduation

Koby Levin

These 53 graduates almost didn’t walk across the stage. They’ve ‘done more than most.’

Hannah Miller was a teen mom with a learning disability who dropped out in the ninth grade. She hardly expected to graduate.

But last week, against all odds, Miller walked across the stage in a shiny yellow robe to receive her high school diploma from Covenant House Academy.

“She’s done more than most,” said Jennifer Leija, the mother of Miller’s boyfriend, speaking through tears. “She’s come a long way.”

The emotional graduation ceremony, held last week at the Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, was a testament to the extraordinary obstacles that many young Detroiters must overcome to obtain an education.

It also highlighted the unusual program that resulted when Covenant House, an organization known mostly for aiding and sheltering homeless youth, opened a charter high school focused on Detroit students who weren’t being served by anyone else. Today, the organization’s charter school network enrolls more than 900 students in Detroit and Grand Rapids, many of them former dropouts struggling with major challenges outside of school.

At the three Detroit sites, more than 22 percent of students have disabilities, nearly double the state rate. Almost all are also economically disadvantaged. It is one of only a few schools in Detroit that provides childcare on-site to young parents.

At another graduation, Miller’s story of perseverance might have been unique. Not among the 53 graduates who walked across the stage last week.

Life caught up with Antonio Peters early, before he could graduate high school. Family strife forced him to leave home and live with a friend, and he began attending Thurston High School in Redford, just outside of Detroit. He got in trouble with the law, and life suddenly seemed filled with the requirements of a two-year probation — his punishment for a misdemeanor.

“I stopped going to school,” the 18-year-old said as he prepared to receive his diploma last week. “I just didn’t want to go.”

He had been away from school for several months when he heard through the grapevine about Covenant House.

He enrolled, and found himself on a smoother path than the one he’d encountered in public school.

“It was very supportive,” he said, adding: “It was easier.”

Speakers at the graduation alternated between congratulating graduates for overcoming the odds and reminding them that their work is far from over.

“This is a time for you to take a breath —  just a little breath,” said Derek E’Lon, administrator of Covenant House Academy’s campus near Corktown. “Your life doesn’t end here, it begins here.”

A high school diploma is no guarantee that the coming decade will be smoother for these students than the last one. Like almost every student who graduates in Detroit, most are not ready for college-level work, putting them at a distinct disadvantage in a society that places an ever-rising premium on a college degree.

Nonetheless, the families in the crowd weren’t cheering themselves hoarse for no reason. A high school diploma has serious implications for graduates’ future earnings.

In 2016, the U.S. Census estimated that the typical income for a high school graduate in Detroit and surrounding Wayne County is $26,000, not nearly enough to comfortably rent an apartment in the city. But if you don’t graduate high school, the situation is even worse: a typical worker without a diploma makes $18,500, according to the Census.

That difference will surely be significant for Hannah Miller. Leija, the who says she was the closest thing to a family member who Miller could count on, credits Covenant House Academy’s unique academic approach, which is designed, above all, to get students across the high school finish line. The schools enroll high schoolers age 16 to 22, and are dedicated largely to “credit recovery” classes, online courses that allow students to quickly receive credit for courses they’ve previously flunked.

Leija knew Hannah when her learning disabilities qualified her for special education in Detroit’s main district, and when her teachers created a plan laying out the additional services she’d receive.

But bullies at Western High School picked up on her vulnerabilities, too, and school was soon a daily nightmare for the ninth-grader, Leija said.

Miller dropped out of school for two years and had a baby. Then something shifted. She heard about Covenant House, and she decided to give school another try.

“I said, ‘I’ve got the baby, you go do what you have to do,’” Leija recalled, adding: “She never thought she could do it.”