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Sweet Serenity: Sober-learning McKinney school reaches 217 graduates
Photo courtesy of Rick Schaap - Serenity High graduate Dylan, 18, receives his high school diploma from McKinney ISD Superintendent J.D. Kennedy and school board members Thursday at a graduation ceremony for him and two others. Dylan spent multiple stints at rehab and time in jail before coming to the school.
Graduation signifies the end of one era and beginning of another, particularly for students at Serenity High.
Their eras were filled with more than just tough history exams and long study hours. Each day they fight further from the throes of substance abuse and addiction, closer to a life of opportunity. They beat odds many high schoolers never know.
"I'm stoked," said Dylan, one of three Serenity High students who graduated Thursday. "Serenity High pretty much just helped me hold on to what I already learned in rehab - helped me keep with it."
Fellow graduates Sarah and Kelly joined Dylan on stage for the school's fall ceremony. Dylan, 18, seemingly spent as much time using drugs, in treatment centers and in jail as he did at school the past few years. He got into drugs and alcohol at age 11 and was in rehab by age 16.
Dylan got off probation last month, after stints at 30-day treatment facilities, two trips to jail in a two-day period and finally a three-month rehab stay, he said.
Perhaps his saving grace was Serenity High, a school in McKinney for students who've completed substance abuse treatment and want to earn their high school diploma in a sober learning environment.
"Without the recovery and support aspect, it'd just be a regular high school," said Stephen Issa, recovery coordinator and teacher at the school. "We have on-campus (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings; we provide means for helping the students get through it while they're dealing with the challenges of staying sober.
"The ones who are really trying to work the program and carry the mission of the school - like these guys - eventually they get it, because without it you just don't graduate."
Thursday's trio became the 215th, 216th and 217th graduates of Serenity High, which opened about 14 years ago. Twenty-five students attended the school this fall, though as many as 80 have been enrolled at one time in the past.
Four teachers who overlap subjects and a small support staff try to ensure their students' young eras end in triumph, not tragedy. Students are drug tested every four weeks, and are accepted to the school at any point in the semester if they've completed treatment.
"I just thought coming to Serenity would help because regular high school is obviously going to be hard if you're sober," said Kelly, 18. "Somebody's going to come up to you and say, 'Hey let's do this and that this weekend,' and Serenity's not like that."
Kelly reached four months sober this week. Originally from the Highland Park area, she grew up attending St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School in Dallas, and said she got into drugs seven years ago. She started at Serenity in October and excelled enough to graduate this week - early.
Donning Serenity's staple purple gowns, together they crossed the stage at St. Michael the Archangel Church, and received their diplomas and congratulations from McKinney ISD Superintendent J.D. Kennedy and school board members. Watching were parents, siblings, friends and those who've backed Serenity High since its inception.
Neil Sperry and his wife, Lynn Sperry, longtime school board member, spoke of the school's inception. Their interest in a sober public school for the area peaked in the mid-1990s, while watching their daughter struggle with drug addiction. Lynn learned of a similar school, Sobriety High, in Minnesota.
"I was convinced McKinney needed a school like this," she said. "We just needed to make it fit the public situation."
About two years later, on the brink of opening the school, the Sperrys and local proponents - parents, counselors, administrators - asked youth in recovery for the school's name. Serenity High won out over "Not High."
And it's been helping students turn their tassels - on stage and in life - ever since.
"I honestly never thought he would get here," said Dylan's mother, teary-eyed. "I thought I would end up burying him before he got to this point."
Dylan, Kelly and Sarah nonchalantly grasped their diplomas, shook hands and smiled for the cameras. Like for most high schoolers, it was a ceremony they may have wanted to end, so they could get back to being teenagers.
Unlike for many others, though, it marked a new beginning - a triumph over rare, sometimes heartbreaking, odds.
"As you face adversity here in the future...I hope you will fall back to what you have learned here at Serenity...for the rest of your life," Kennedy told the graduates. "You've been through a lot and you've overcome it, and that's something you should be extremely proud of. I know you guys have a bright future ahead of you."