Taylor Rozier’s path to achieve a high school diploma took an unexpected turn. So did her graduation.
She was one of 87 graduates in the Middle College program to pick up a diploma during a drive-through commencement ceremony Wednesday.
The unconventional evening gave Rozier exactly what she hoped for: A way to celebrate with the family, teachers and staff who helped her through a difficult time.
“Everyone there was a positive influence not just in my schooling but in my life,” Rozier said. “They cared about me. I was not just another student.”
Middle College, an innovative program created to reduce the high school dropout rate and provide career training in Springfield, started 12 years ago on the Ozarks Technical Community College campus.
The program, the first of its kind in Missouri, provides an option for bright students who have struggled in the traditional high school setting.
Rozier attended the Springfield Lutheran School through eighth grade and then enrolled at Glendale High School, where she joined speech and debate.
She made friends but medical issues surfaced at the end of her sophomore year. Finally she was diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder exacerbated by stress.
“I just needed a change of pace and a change of scenery,” she said.
Her mom discovered the Middle College option, which offered flexible scheduling, career pathways, mentors and the ability to earn college credit while finishing high schools.
Rozier said the transition was easier than she expected.
“I thought it would be stressful because I’d be on a college campus with less authority watching over me. There are no hall bells or ID badges,” she said. “Honestly, that made it easier for me because…having that independence actually really helped me focus on my studies even more.”
She explored the medical pathway and figured out it wasn’t a good fit. She moved into the one for early childhood development.
“(Middle College) is honestly one of the best decisions I’ve made about my education,” Rozier said.
This spring was a challenge. Two months ago, when the coronavirus pandemic closed down the campus, she completed coursework from home.
“I’ve learned I’m not a good online student,” she said. “I learn very well in class, actually doing things and touching things.”
This fall, Rozier plans to attend Truman State University. She has earned more than 30 college credits as part of the Middle College program.
She has not yet declared a college major. “I want to work with people and I want to find something that makes me happy but I don’t know what field or career yet.”
Tiffany Brunner, director of Middle College, said teachers and staff felt strongly that the seniors and families ought to gather for an in-person celebration.
With social distancing and other safety measures in mind, they opted for a drive-through graduation. Brunner said staff members across campus, from creative services to instructional technology, came together to pull it off.
“They have worked really hard,” she said. “For them to just put a robe on and be able to celebrate meant a lot.”
Middle College typically has an enrollment of 150 students, mostly juniors and seniors. Demand was so high, there are at least 160 signed up for next year.
Brunner said all Middle College seniors graduated on time for the fifth consecutive year. The application-only program is open to students in Springfield, Republic, Sparta, Nixa, Everton and Logan-Rogersvile.
At each graduation, Brunner said she is touched by the transitions students make.
“There are just tears running down their face because they made it,” she said. “You see these kids come in as one person and leave as another.”
Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to email@example.com and consider supporting vital local journalism by subscribing. Learn more by visiting News-Leader.com/subscribe.
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