A few years ago, Sydney Ward was pretty sure she had hit rock bottom. She was a high school dropout with no plans and no direction.
“I worked a little bit here and there, but I really was just [messing] around,” she said. “I’ve always had the goal in the back of my mind that I was going to graduate. But I just kind of saw everyone else going places and I really wasn’t.”
After two years away from school, something clicked.
“I wasn’t happy,” Ward said. “What makes me happy is accomplishing things and I wasn’t accomplishing things and that was making me really depressed, so I changed it.”
It took a few tries, but once she re-registered at Forsyth Central High School, Ward made the switch to the Forsyth Academy, a school designed for nontraditional students, that lets them work at their own pace.
The program expanded in 2009 to offer Academy @ Night, which Ward took advantage of to make up for all the lost time.
“I would have been a high school dropout for the rest of my life,” she said. “The school, the whole idea, every single thing about it has completely changed my life.
“There really aren’t any words to describe how grateful I am for the place.”
Because of the Academy, Ward was still able to graduate high school on time — a few months early even — despite being out of school for about two years.
“I finished my whole high school career in a little over a year and a half,” she said.
The school system had students like Ward in mind when it created Forsyth Academy, and the other programs in the Academies of Creative Education, including iAchieve Virtual Academy.
Forsyth County Schools Chief Accountability Officer and Director of Legal Services Cindy Salloum said the academy has helped at-risk students, but has also found success as a way for those seeking to graduate ahead of time.
Between the county’s five traditional high schools, 10 students graduated a full year early this past school year. During that same time period, 23 students from the creative education academies did the same.
Graduating early is nothing new, Salloum said, but it’s “a little more achievable now.”
“Forsyth Academy has probably been the place that has the largest increase of students graduating early,” she said. “Because if they came in and worked hard, they could just keep on moving.”
The change has been small, Salloum said, but the number of students finishing early has increased over the years.
The biggest change came when the school system got Investing in Education Excellence, or IE2 status.
The contract with the state gives the system more freedom from Georgia’s mandates in exchange for increased accountability.
Under the contract, students are not bound to attend school if they’ve completed their coursework, Salloum said.
Before the arrangement, students had to have a certain amount of seat time to graduate, regardless of their course credits.
Salloum said the flexibility isn’t for everyone and can be a fine line to walk with students.
While some area eager and ready, others could burn out and fall behind. But with the school’s offerings, she expects more students may try to finish up ahead of time.
“I still say kids who are able to do it, even if they’d like to do it, they’ll still stay in high school four years,” she said. “Most of them want to stay and experience their senior year.”
For Courtney Hewatt, there’s nothing more to experience.
At 17, Hewatt has been to prom three times. She’s also been a cheerleader and track athlete on the varsity level during her time at Central.
“There’s nothing that I haven’t done yet,” she said of her high school career. “I’m ready to start college and get going.”
By taking online courses through iAchieve and classes at Academy @ Night, Hewatt said she was able to finish her four years with some extra work during her junior year and the summer.
She’s currently taking advanced composition and economy. When she celebrates her 18th birthday in August, Hewatt will be finished, nearly a full year early.
There were some sacrifices.
Hewatt said she didn’t hang out with friends as much as she would have liked, and most of her free time was spent on extra schoolwork. But the extra work has paid off.
Hewatt will be attending Kennesaw State University in the fall and will be a walk-on member of the track team.
“I loved it so much in high school, I’m really excited to see how that goes this year,” she said.
Hewatt added that she hopes to become a nutritionist because she’s “always been into how I eat and exercise and would love to share that with other people.”
For Ward, her future career choice remains unknown.
She plans to earn both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Gainesville State College, which she’ll attend in the fall, but hasn’t decided between nursing and business.
Either way, she will continue working full time for Citizens Bank of Forsyth County, as well as at the Gasthause restaurant on the weekends.
It’s a lot of hours, but she’s quick to note that hard work is how she got to this point.
“I was very motivated … a lot of people noticed my desire to get everything done and my work ethic, so I got offered a job at the bank,” she said. “It really meant a lot because it’s opened so many doors for me.
“Everything that’s in my life is because I worked so hard, so it means the world to me.”