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Escambia Celebrates Class of ’23: ‘I Feel Like They Saved My Life’

June 14, 2023 | Jeffrey Good

Escambia Celebrates Class of ’23: ‘I Feel Like They Saved My Life’ image

Family, friends and educators gathered recently to celebrate the hard work, determination and bright future of the Escambia County Acceleration Academies Class of 2023. 

Each grad had a powerful story to tell of overcoming academic and life challenges to earn their diplomas rather than settling for a GED or giving up on high school altogether. Take, for instance, Prudence Dumas.

Woman stands leaning against wall

ECAA graduate Prudence Dumas.

Prudence came to ECAA from a traditional high school during her senior year. The reason wasn’t academics; she had always been a strong student. But a series of personal challenges — particularly the depression that set in after her father died — had sapped her motivation and made her wonder if she would make it through to graduation. 

“He was my rock,” she says. “I found myself losing motivation entirely. I stopped going to class. I disappeared for more than a month because I could not get out of bed.”

Even when she made it to school, the crowds and long hours took their toll. “The 8-hour days were horrid. They were long. They dragged.”

She found out about ECAA from Director Mat Taylor, who got her name from school district officials and told her about a non-traditional alternative. She says, “That call, it was a godsend.” 

At ECAA, she found a completely different environment. Instead of rows of student desks, she found a spacious learning space with comfortable chairs, a kitchen stocked with drinks and snacks and natural light pouring through the big windows. “It felt like an internet cafe.” 

The flexible scheduling was a big plus. She could do her coursework at her own pace, blending study at home with learning onsite. “It was quieter. It was relaxed. You could set your own schedule.”

And when she needed help, all she had to do was ask. 

“It was just a really nice way to get out of the house and get a little bit of sunshine and interact with adults who genuinely care, have the time to care and were not trying to navigate 300 students at a time.” 

She cited in particular ESE coach Amy Weaver, who would sometimes sit with her for hours to help her keep momentum and overcome academic obstacles. She also gave a shout to registrar Walter Smith, who greets graduation candidates as they walk through the door. 

“Mr. Walter, he is like a god to everyone in that building. He is a fine, caring, loving dude,” she says. Having a warm, positive male adult was especially important after losing her father. “He was a huge help to me.” 

Prudence is an artist with hopes of building her skill and making a living with her creative powers. If not for Escambia County Acceleration Academies, she says, her life and future would look very different. 

“I definitely would have dropped out,” she says. “I feel like they saved me, honestly.” 

Prudence and her classmates were celebrated by family members, friends, ECAA educators, along with Acceleration Academies network leaders Dr. Margie Sharp, Executive Vice President and Chief Education Officer and Mark Graves, Executive Vice President and Chief Engagement Officer. 

ECAA Director Taylor offered the grads words of advice as they head on to college, trade school and the workforce. He urged them to consider the wisdom of three sayings: “What you permit, you promote;” “Attitude and effort will determine your destination;” and “You are a reflection of the top 5 people you spend time with.”

“Life is hard. There will always be obstacles,” Taylor told the grads. “How you approach each and every day will determine if those challenges defeat you or not. You will not be able to control everything around you but you will always be able to control your attitude and effort toward situations and people. Learn and grow from the experiences as you are in them, seek out guidance from mentors you look up to and always give your best effort.” 

Here are images from a graduation celebration held at the academy, courtesy of photographer Laura Muehl. The grads also participated in a district ceremony. 

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