Nakaya Domina had been disengaging from school for years before she left Cimarron-Memorial High School in Las Vegas in 2019.
“I was doing horribly, because I was never in class: Ds and Fs—I think I had one C in a class,” said Domina, 18. “I just was too concerned about making more friends than focusing on my schoolwork. Like, I would go ditch class to go hang out with my friends, or I would just completely blow off all the teachers. I was just really concerned with getting the whole high school experience of the Friday night football games and finding a prom date and all that stuff that you really shouldn’t be worrying about.”
Discipline issues with some of those friends led Domina to leave school completely for six months in the first half of 2019.
Domina started at an academic recovery program in Clark County, Nev., called Acceleration Academy online, just as the rest of the district moved into quarantine in 2020. While she said she liked the flexibility of being online, disconnecting socially made it tough to stay motivated while making up more than 20 credits.
“I have [attention deficit disorder] and I kind of need people around me doing work,” she said. “I can’t just be by myself in a room, ‘cause then I’ll freak out and be like, ‘Oh my God, I’m falling behind,’ or ‘I’m going too fast’, or I’ll just think I’m doing something wrong.”
“The most challenging part was trying to learn how to change from focusing all my time on making friends and putting all that time into studies. I would not do schoolwork for a couple days ‘cause I was so upset. I’d go on Instagram and see them out partying. I’m like, I could be with them right now, but instead I’m over here doing school,” Domina said. “I was really angry at everything.”
Domina began to regain her momentum with the help of her “graduation candidate advocate"—an individual mentor who got her back on campus for full-day classes three days a week.
“We had a lot of long talks when I’d go to campus,” Domina said. “And she was like, ‘Girl, you better get your head on straight. Here’s what I did when I was younger and here’s what you’re doing; I want you to go in the other direction.’ She knew when I was goofing off and not doing anything and she called me out.”
Clark County’s is the largest dropout recovery program in Acceleration’s seven-state network, with about 1,300 students this fall. Margaret Sharp, the chief education officer for the nonprofit Acceleration Academies, said students need mentors who can help them think beyond graduation.
“There’s a huge dropout population out there, with a really big district and … a unique area for programming because of the casinos,” Sharp said. “It’s the city that doesn’t sleep and kids that drop out can go and work parking cars and make $60,000 a year. So the value proposition has to be broader, to help kids see why that kind of job might sound good when you’re 18 years old, but eventually it’s not going to lead to long-term financial security without a high school diploma.”
To keep Domina thinking long-term, the school connected her to a local company willing to pay her to become certified in digital marketing analysis after she graduated this August.
To re-engage students who have dropped out during the pandemic, Domina said, schools need to offer more mental health and other social supports, rather than only focusing on academic credit recovery.
“Help the kids get more psychological help—a counselor or a psychiatrist at school or at least have someone to turn the kids towards, so they’re not stuck in their head, going crazy,” she said.
At Acceleration, by contrast, “you just reach out and say, ‘Hey, I’m going through a rough time. I need some help here.’ And they’re right away like, ‘OK, well, here’s the programs we have. We’ll call them and tell them to reach out to you.’”