When Avery Johnson recently received his high school diploma, he put it above the fireplace in his home. And every day, when he walks in the door, he still can’t believe what he sees.
“I’m still in shock,” he said. “It’s a reminder that I can do anything if I put my mind to it. It’s very emotional because it’s something I’ve always wanted. To have it today is a great blessing.”
As a teen, Johnson was held back a couple of grades. He didn’t like being the oldest student in his class and decided he was “too old to graduate.” For more than 20 years, he told himself he’d go back and get his diploma.
But at 42, he again felt intimidated about being the oldest student in the class.
“I was afraid I wouldn’t remember anything,” Johnson said. “But I gave it a chance. And I’m pretty happy with the results. Some of the students that took the course are even older than me.”
It was when he was attending a Back-to-School Festival that he heard about the Career Online High School Initiative. With participating public libraries, qualified Florida residents can receive free private high school diplomas. Johnson is one of 16 online students in Okaloosa County. Seven of those students will graduate Saturday with a small ceremony at the Niceville Community Complex.
Students are given 18 months to complete the degree which also comes with a career certificate of their choice from 10 different career fields. Public libraries, like Okaloosa County, administer the tuition scholarships and provide student support, said Vicky Stever, coordinator at the Okaloosa County Public Library Cooperative.
Johnson said he was able to easily settle into his school routine by doing his courses before work and in the evenings.
“I had to put everything off — parties and fishing,” he said with a laugh. “I had to focus on what’s important.”
The Career Online High School program was funded for three nonconsecutive years through the state Legislature. Unfortunately, the state did not fund the program for the current fiscal year.
“The Florida Library Association is rallying advocacy efforts to restore statewide funding ($750,000),” Stever said in an email. “That’s one of the outcomes I hope will result from this graduation — increased awareness and appreciation for the program leading the public to contact legislators. The Florida Library Association is sending a representative to the commencement and he will give a welcome speech.”
The students in Okaloosa County’s program come from all walks of life, with various amounts of credits. One student just needed to finish one semester to graduate, and another started from zero credits, because the high school education from Brazil didn’t transfer.
Stacey Gallimore, 28, is a single mom of two young boys. She left school in the 11th grade.
“I had behavioral issues and was put in special education classes,” she said. “But I didn’t want to graduate with a special education diploma … I wouldn’t even be able to get a job.”
Stacey was encouraged by her sister, Trisha, to sign up for the online school program. Trisha will also be graduating Saturday.
Graduating feels like a “huge accomplishment,” Stacey said. It’s also a little bit of redemption.
“At my 6th-grade graduation, nobody showed up,” she said. “When they called my name it was dead silent. I cried for days. One of my teachers will be driving five hours just to see me graduate. I’ll have my kids and my friends. I know there will be cheering this time.”
Stacey has already started college and is working to become a VPK teacher. Her long-term goal is to be an elementary teacher.
“I want to be the caring teacher children deserve,” she said.
With his diploma, Johnson will be eligible for a promotion at the city of Crestview water department where he’s worked as a utilities service worker for three years.
“My boss told me, ‘Get your diploma and I’ll be glad to let you take the water distribution test,’’ he explained.
Beyond the pay raise, Johnson said he’ll be glad to walk in a graduation ceremony in front of his kids. He has two grown children and a 7-year-old daughter, who will be at the ceremony.
“I stayed on (my older kids) to graduate,” he said. “I always told them that I would be going back. When they saw my high school diploma they just said, ‘wow.’”
Johnson’s high school graduation may have been a long time coming, but it was worth the wait.
“I never knew this program existed,” he said. “It’s just a dream come true. I prayed for this and I’m a living witness to it."