Quisean Suter-Robinson’s graduation wasn’t the one he initially dreamed of, but that’s OK. “It feels better because I didn’t fold under pressure. The things along the way built my character,” he said.

Graduates including Kaiyon Jaynes (front) listen to instructions from administrators prior to the 2022-2023 mid-year high school commencement ceremony at the School of the Future in Phila., Pa. on Wed., Feb. 08, 2023.

For Khalia Smith, graduation didn’t take place on a bright spring day after four years of high school.

Instead, she collected her diploma on a cold February night while her family — including 1-year-old daughter Ri’Lee — cheered.

“It felt amazing, the best feeling in my whole 20 years,” Smith said. “I felt like if I did it, I can do anything I set my mind to. I just felt like I was a star walking across the stage.”

In a school system where reducing the number of dropouts is a core focal point (along with boosting student and teacher attendance), stories such as Smith’s will be increasingly important.

The district’s exact dropout rate is not clear, but Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. estimated that 11% to 14% do not graduate. (Its four-year high school graduation rate is 70%.)

Philadelphia Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. congratulates a graduate during the 2022-2023 mid-year high school commencement ceremony at the School of the Future.

But at last week’s ceremony, Watlington focused on the work of Smith and 184 young men and women who graduated from 16 Philadelphia alternative programs Wednesday, saying their accomplishment was a testament to “the hard work, perseverance and dedication of our students.”

‘I’m going to work, work, work’: Khalia Smith

Smith started high school at KIPP DuBois Collegiate Academy, a charter school. But it wasn’t a good fit.

“I had some difficulties,” said Smith, who lives in North Philadelphia.

In 2019, she transferred to Excel Academy North, an accelerated program for Philadelphia students who are behind on credits. Smith wanted to do better, but it was difficult. She got pregnant in 2020, and endured a house fire. Eventually, she left school again.

“It was just so much stress,” she said.

After she gave birth to Ri’Lee, things felt different.

Khalia Smith shows off her diploma from Excel Academy North.

“I had to sacrifice stuff that I needed to do in order for me to be a better parent and a better human being,” said Smith.

She returned to Excel in 2021, resolved to power through. She’d drop the baby off at daycare, then take the bus to school, work through a full day of classes, take the bus back to day care to pick up Ri’Lee, drop her off at home, then work as a home health aide from 6 to 11 p.m.

Some days, Smith “felt like I couldn’t do it anymore,” she said. “I wanted to give up so many times.”

But she kept graduation fixed in her mind.

“I was actually focused,” said Smith. “I surrounded myself with better friends who were into getting motivated and starting their journeys. It was more hands-on; they would take you one by one and actually talk to you to see what was the problem.”

For now, Smith is continuing her work as a home health aide, but earning her diploma has convinced her that she can do more. She’d like to start a clothing line — she even has a name picked out: Amore, for Ri’Lee’s middle name.

“I’m going to work, work, work until I get to the point where I can own my own business,” Smith said. “That’s something for my daughter. There will be a business for her to carry on when she gets older.”

‘I started believing in a better future’: Faheema Williams-Allen

Faheema Willams-Allen had a great freshman year at Benjamin Franklin High School.

Then the pandemic hit. Virtual school was isolating.

“Once COVID hit, I started to slack off,” Williams-Allen said. “Eventually, my grades dropped. When I got back to school for in person, behavior-wise, I started to slip.”

Eventually, Williams-Allen had to make a choice: Stay at Ben Franklin and possibly not graduate, or find a different path. She opted to leave, enrolling in Philadelphia Learning Academy North (PLAN), a district alternative school, in late 2021.

Everything clicked again.

“My grades were even better than they were in ninth grade,” said Williams-Allen, 18, who lives in North Philadelphia. “I started believing in a better future for myself.”

Smaller classes and more individualized attention helped. Williams-Allen got back into a good groove, posting good grades, feeling more confident.

Andrea Woodard, a teacher at PLAN, said Williams-Allen was a model student. She took on more work than she had to, in part to graduate early — Williams-Allen is expecting a baby, a boy due in March.

“She was definitely a leader in our school,” Woodard said. “She had to want it; nothing was handed to her.”

Graduations feel especially sweet to Woodard, who’s worked at PLAN for 12 years.

“We get the kids the rest of society has written off,” she said. “People think this is a second chance for students, but they don’t understand the greatness that actually goes on in these places.”

Williams-Allen’s goals seem much more possible now, she said: She’d like to eventually become a nurse, but plans to start as a medical assistant. She’s been accepted to Community College of Philadelphia, and is exploring another possible program.

For now, Williams-Allen will be replaying her graduation in her mind, the feelings of elation and pride, hugging Woodard hard.

“It was kind of a little relief, and excitment,” Williams-Allen said. “It took me some time to get there.”

‘I didn’t fold under pressure’: Quisean Suters-Robinson

There are a lot of ways Quisean Suters-Robinson’s high school career might have finished. He got good grades in honors classes for years. And he also dropped out for awhile.

But ultimately, earning a diploma from Excel Academy North felt like the right finish, Suters-Robinson said.

“I’m glad I graduated from Excel,” said Suters-Robinson, 19. “It feels better because I didn’t fold under pressure. The things along the way built my character.”

Suters-Robinson, who lives in West Philadelphia, attended Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia, a charter school, beginning in fifth grade. He relished the college prep work.

But then the pandemic disrupted things for Suters-Robinson.

Quisean Suters-Robinson graduated from Excel Academy North Wednesday.

“I was out of school for quite some time,” he said. “I had been doing some things I wasn’t supposed to be doing.”

He returned to Boys’ Latin, but it eventually became clear that graduating with his class wasn’t a possibility. Suters-Robinson felt discouraged; he thought about leaving again and earning a GED.

Instead, he began classes at Excel Academy North, where he felt inspired by a school full of people with all kinds of stories, united by a desire to finish their diplomas, even though they had encountered obstacles in the past.

“I felt really understood,” said Suters-Robinson. “I’m grateful for Excel, because they pushed me to be successful. They pushed me to graduate. I found a sense of myself.”

Suters-Robinson knows he has options. He’s exploring the idea of an associate’s degree, or possibly a program to specialize in a trade such as plumbing or carpentry.

Growing up in Philadelphia, there’s lots to derail students, Suters-Robinson said. But he hopes his path shows others what’s possible.

“Kids in Philly, they just need someone to have a conversation with them, they need people to tell them there are different options,” he said. “You can’t just be what your environment is.”