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All in the family: 34 students to graduate Thursday at Newton’s West Academy

When Maddy Brown walks across the stage at Newton’s DMACC campus Thursday morning, she’ll be taking her first step as a high school graduate — something she thought was impossible last spring.

Brown is one of 34 students who will graduate from Newton’s West Academy this week, the district’s alternative high school.

“My life is very, very different now,” Brown said. “I don’t think I could’ve gone anywhere with my life without getting my diploma.”

Brown, who was a junior at Newton High School last year was in a deep tailspin. Struggling with an ongoing bullying problem, her attendance had started to slip; she’d been showing up late to school, cutting classes and had gotten into a fight with a classmate.

“This time last year I didn’t think I was going to graduate,” Brown said. “I was skipping school a lot. There was a lot of drama going on.”

Before switching her daughter to classes at West Academy Melissa Brown seldom did a day go by without receiving a phone call from the high school. Leaving work before Maddy left for school, Brown was relying on her daughter to get to school, something that often wasn’t happening.

“She just totally lost her drive,” Melissa Brown said. “She got so far behind I think she thought she wouldn’t be able to catch up.”

For Principal Brett Miller, Brown’s struggles are a familiar refrain. Many of the students who attend classes at West are looking to get back on track with a fresh start. Working with students one on one, Miller sees common themes in each student’s experience — they’ve lost a connection to the school, a connection that keeps them coming back every day. At West Miller and his staff focus on building that connection any way possible.

“Her experience epitomizes what happens at West, kids have lost that connection with the high school,” Miller said. “That’s a huge difficulty that I see here.”

At first, Brown didn’t want to attend West, sitting in the parking lot on the first day of school this year she felt overwhelmed. A year later, she doesn’t want to leave. From her first day the teachers at staff at West made her feel like she was part of the family.

“Even on the first day I felt like I belonged here, teachers took me in, and they took me under their wing,” Brown said. “I love it here. I wish I would’ve come sooner.”

The class sizes are smaller made it easier for Brown to focus. Not only has Brown excelled at West, she’s also worked to mentor other students, encouraging them to stay on track as well. After years of struggling with school, Brown has found a place where she feels accepted. Teachers have helped her feel welcome and accepted at the alternative school, a change from the high school where she often felt alienated. For Brown, the experience has been nothing short of life changing.

“I thought I’d be a failure, but here I get all A’s and B’s,” Brown said. “The teachers here aren’t going to let you struggle.”

Now that Brown is graduating this week, Melissa Brown said the experience has been life changing for her daughter. Without West, Maddy’s mother doesn’t think she would’ve been able to graduate.

“They kept her on track. I don’t have enough good things to say about that place,” Melissa Brown said. “I think she should have gone to West long before she did.”

It isn’t just students who feel like family at West. The small group of teachers who work at the school have grown close over the years as well. For Ryan Comer, the school’s social studies teacher, it’s hard not to get emotional as students prepare to graduate. Comer likes to joke that he and fellow teacher Phil Calvin always bring tissues to the graduation ceremony, but their concern for students is genuine.

“It chokes me up a little because you don’t know who you have an impact on,” Comer said. “These kids can tell who cares and who doesn’t.”

Without the athletic activities the high school offers, West has to rely on the relationships students forge with teachers and administrators. For Comer, that means giving students a chance to see teachers as “real people,” someone they can connect with. Starting at West as a long term substitute, the Newton High School graduate still remembers the moment he found out he’d been hired full time at the alternative school.

“I started crying in the principal’s office,” Comer said. “You get into teaching because you want to help kids, and these are the kids that need it.”

Comer knows many might have preconceived notions about the students who attend West. He’s heard people around Newton talk about the “bad kids” he teaches at the alternative high school, but he shrugs those complaints away. Over the years he’s gotten to know many of his students personally, to him, they’re just like any other high school student.

Staying in touch via Facebook has allowed him to keep in contact with many former students. The social studies teacher said there’s nothing better than having a front-row seat as former students succeed, start families, find jobs and make their way in the world. In the classroom he’s seen the changes firsthand, seeing students come in, disconnected and unhappy.

“It’s hard to describe, but it’s amazing to see how quickly they mature,” Comer said. “They mature right before your eyes.”

After nearly a decade of teaching at West, Comer can’t imagine working anywhere else. On Thursday, when Brown and her classmates walk across the stage at DMACC, he’ll be one of the first to congratulate each graduate.

“They’re not even thinking about graduation when they come here,” Comer said. “Seeing them accomplish that thing they didn’t think could happen is amazing.”

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or

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