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Just a few months ago, Kendrell New felt stuck. The 20-year-old had bounced between several different New Orleans high schools since Hurricane Katrina, before finding one she liked. But a diploma still eluded her.

New kept failing Louisiana’s graduate exit exam in math — a test she needed to pass in order to graduate. Math had never come easy for her.

New took the test for a tenth time last October. But she would have to wait several weeks for the results. With college ambitions and a five-year-old son to support, New was eager to get on with her life.

Listen to an audio version of this story that aired on New Orleans public radio.

“That’s the reason why…I was stuck in neutral, because of a test,” she said.

Eighteen-year-old Darrell Quinn’s October was even more stressful. He spent time in jail after being involved in a fight at his school. Although he only spent a weekend locked up, he says it “felt like a week and a half.”

Quinn was not charged with anything serious. But when he got out, he learned that for the fourth time in four years, he would be expelled from high school. Worse, Crescent Leadership Academy, the alternative school he attended, was the end of the line. The school of last resort. Quinn had been expelled from the school where the expelled kids went.

ReNEW schools
Darrell Quinn, with family, on his graduation day. (Photo: Sarah Carr)

“It would be kind of sad, I’m a half a year from graduating and I can’t graduate,” he said.

Just when he thought he might have to drop out, Quinn heard about ReNEW Accelerated High School, a self-paced program for students who have fallen behind. High schools like ReNEW are becoming more common locally and nationwide, with at least three similar programs opening in the New Orleans area in the last five years. All rely at least partly on online courses to help students catch up. Supporters say the schools are a much-needed option for students like Quinn who are on the verge of dropping out. Skeptics worry about the quality of the online classes, and say the new options take the onus off traditional schools to serve all kids well.

In Quinn’s case, all he needed was four and a half more credits.

“I’m like, ‘This on my last chance,’” he said. “I really got to get my diploma, stop playing around,’” he said.

Looking at his transcript, however, some of ReNEW’s staff members doubted it would be easy. “I think we were probably all hesitant…because he had been to so many schools and it’s so easy for the kids to get distracted,” said Sara Becker, the school social worker.

Between the two of them, Quinn and New have changed high schools 13 times. Quinn moved around so much that he can’t remember the name of one high school that expelled him. “It’s like a ghost,” he said.

Quinn never struggled with academics. But he admits to having issues with authority figures. And, at several of the schools, he was simply bored. “It comes so easy to me that I got too much time on my hands,” he said.

New had a different problem. She lacked Quinn’s academic confidence and felt lost in classes with upwards of 40 students at New Orleans’ Cohen High School, which she attended twice.

“I would act up you know what I’m saying because I’m not getting the attention I need,” she said.

In 2011, New enrolled at the NET Charter, an alternative school much like the one where Quinn had ended up. At the NET, New got the one-on-one time she needed and slowly racked up credits. By last August, the math exam was the one thing standing in the way of her graduating.

The final push

The staff at ReNEW quickly sensed Quinn’s determination.

“He knew it was time for him to buckle down and get finished,” said Becker, the social worker. “He had decided that he was ready. And once he put his mind to it, he got through it in a flash with no problem.”

Quinn says he matured a lot over the last few months. “I got the mindset to where I come to school, I do my work, I go home,” he said.

By December, Quinn had earned his final credits: in chemistry, advanced math, physical science, world geography, and a half a credit in PE.

After four years, four expulsions, and eight schools, Darrell Quinn would finally graduate.

New was at home talking to her niece one winter morning when an unexpected text popped up on her phone. She dropped the phone when she saw the news.

“I ran outside and just was screaming…like I just won the lottery or something,” she said.

New had, on the tenth try, passed the graduate exit exam in math.

She will graduate this Saturday during a ceremony at New Orleans’ Ashe Cultural Center. After that, she plans to work toward a nursing degree. Passing the test liberated her.

“Now I can finally just be free, go left, right, up, down, whichever way I want,” she said.

Quinn hopes to find a job so he can save money and go to school for welding. His family was out in force for his graduation ceremony, just five days before Christmas. He assumed his typical nonchalant air as he posed for pictures and lined up outside the auditorium. But the mood was anything but relaxed when the 17 graduates finally proceeded in to receive their diplomas.

Quinn smiled. His family members rose to their feet. And the sounds of unbridled joy filled the auditorium.

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