By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN
Sierra Smith learned early on the typical high school setting was not going to work for her.
But her dream was to follow in her mother's footsteps and become a nurse someday, and she knew the first step was to earn a high school diploma.
Smith is continuing following that dream because of The Learning Center of Ellis County.
The 18-year-old mother of two young children was among 11 students who received their high school diploma at the TLC's fall graduation earlier this week.
Smith said she chose the route of The Learning Center because of its flexibility. The center offers a computer-based, self-paced curriculum for an alternative way to earn a high school diploma.
But it wasn't easy, Smith said.
"It's ridiculously hard," Smith said of attending school and working while raising a young family. She and her boyfriend, Oscar Vallejo, are the parents of a 3-year-old son, Logan, and a 5-month-old daughter, Evellett.
"There were times when I was trying to read human biology and comfort my daughter because she had a stomach ache or throw a ball to my son while doing vocabulary and doing my flash cards," Smith said. "But it just depends on how badly you want it."
Anita Scheve, coordinator of The Learning Center, said the graduations at TLC often are more emotional than the traditional high school graduation ceremonies.
"We need to honor these students," Scheve said. "Most of the time, it has taken (TLC students) greater strides to get there."
Dean Katt, interim superintendent of Hays USD 489, agreed.
"When you look at some of those challenges they have to overcome to get to that point, it's impressive," he said.
Katt, who began his new position in September after moving to Hays from Ottawa, was impressed with his first graduation ceremony as head of the Hays school district.
"Hays has so many great things going for it, from early childhood to post-secondary," he said. "And I'm really proud to be a part of all that."
Now, Smith is part of that success story.
While at The Learning Center, Smith also took classes at North Central Kansas Technical College and has been working as a certified nurse's assistant for Allied Recruitment Resources, an employment agency for CNAs.
She will receive her certified medications assistant license later this month and plans to enroll in NCK Tech's nursing program for the fall semester.
"I don't think if I would have gotten this far this fast and done this well, if not for The Learning Center," Smith said, giving a lot of credit to Scheve and Sondra Hickert, a TLC teacher.
"I swear they are overachievers," Smith said. "They really care about their students. I could see that they really did care that I graduated, that they would do anything to make sure I got that diploma."