Metro lauds grads who overcame 'heartbreaking' childhoods

Some of the 37 graduates of the alternative school share stories

CEDAR RAPIDS — Once some of the city’s most at risk of dropping out of school, 37 Metro High students filed into their graduation ceremony over the weekend to a standing ovation from their families and teachers.

“I think a lot of the people, we weren’t expecting this to happen,” said Alex Meek in her black cap and gown. “It’s an exciting feeling. I, definitely, wasn’t expecting this to actually happen.”

As the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s alternative high school, Metro educates students facing significant challenges. The Class of 2019 included teenage parents, students living independently and those who endured childhood trauma.

All of the students’ backgrounds “are fascinating and heartbreaking and inspiring,” Principal Dan DeVore said. “ … These guys just made it, for a variety of reasons. We’re really excited for them.”

On Saturday, the 37 grads joined thousands of other teenagers in the Corridor who earned high school diplomas over Memorial Day weekend.

Metro’s ceremony began somberly, as families and staff paused to remember four students and alumni who were involved in a May 18 shooting. DeVore described them as members of the “Metro family.”

The shooting hospitalized two teenagers with life-threatening injuries and killed two others — Matrell Johnson and Royal Abram, both 18. Johnson graduated from Metro in January, and Abram would have graduated Saturday.


“The grief process is still happening,” DeVore told The Gazette. “But there’s still a recognition that our students here deserve our support. We want to focus on them and celebrate what they’ve done, not just focus on what’s happened in the last week.”

Here are some of their stories:

Avionté Crawford

Near-universally recognized as one of Metro’s standout seniors, Avionté Crawford spent most of his freshman year asleep.

“There was a whole ‘Old Me,’” he said, “who was just a very terrible kid.”

A former Jefferson High student, Crawford ignored class, skipped detention and eventually ran away from home. For a year, he slept on friends’ couches.

I have big plans

- Avionté Crawford


His language arts teacher, Ann Van Etten-Janey, once annoyed by Crawford’s heavy eyelids, said her student’s turnaround at Metro was incredible to witness.

“One day, poof,” she said. “I learned you were one of the most fascinating humans I’ve ever met.”

The personal relationships he formed with staff at Metro motivated him, Crawford said, to become the first in his family to finish high school in four years. He plans to attend Kirkwood Community College to study business.

“I have big plans. Knowing how to meet and speak to people, networking, this is all practice for me,” Crawford said of an interview with a reporter. “I’m sweating right now, but I’m trying. A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to talk to you right now.”

Alex Meek

Metro gave Alex Meek, 18, space to find her voice in theater.


After dropping out in eighth grade, it took therapy and helpful friends to get Meek back to class. When she arrived at Metro, she was working through depression and suicidal ideation.

On her graduation day, theater teacher Sarah Collingsworth used Meek’s lingo to describe the grad: “She is the most far out, groovy little babe I know,” she said.

I will do something amazing

- Alex Meek


No longer one of hundreds of high-schoolers, Meek grew as a writer and performer throughout high school. She volunteered often at her school’s child care center — where students’ children are cared for at no cost — and plans to work there next year.

“I was never good at school, it was never something I was passionate about. What’s the point?” Meek recalled thinking. “ … But I’m glad I kept going with it, because otherwise I wouldn’t be where I am right now.”

In a script performed at one of the theater department’s shows this year, Meek wrote: “I believe I now have purpose. I used to believe my life was worthless and without purpose, but now I know I will do something amazing.”

“Go do that something amazing,” Collingsworth told her.

Bradlee Miller

Bradlee Miller received his diploma with a rainbow scarf draped over this shoulders, knit by Metro counselor Tara Wheatley McLaughlin.

Miller, 19, once made a drawing of McLaughlin wearing a similar scarf, his teacher told the crowd at graduation. This, she said, would be his own pride scarf.

I’m becoming more confident

- Bradlee Miller


Miller — who jokes that someday he’ll steal the Metro art teacher’s job — said he enjoys sketching, pop art, painting and upcycling clothes. He plans to move to Waterloo and attend Hawkeye Community College.


When he started at Metro four years ago, Miller said he was insecure but quickly met people interested in being his friend.

“I might be awkward,” he said. “But I’m also really creative, and I’m becoming more confident. And I work really hard — I was up until 4 a.m. the other day, trying to finish everything before the last day of school.”

McLaughlin said Miller has been “an advocate for others” at Metro and encouraged him to follow his goal of being a teacher and “inspire kids to express who you are.”

“I’ve also want to be the person that taught them to love themselves,” Miller wrote in an essay that McLaughlin read to the crowd. “Because you’ve only got one you, so why waste your life trying to change it?”

Jason Jaeger

Large classes at Kennedy High were overwhelming for Jason Jaeger, 18. His Metro classes, with just five or so others, were a relief.

“It was really nice to have the teacher be able to talk to me,” said Jaeger, who has autism. “Instead of 30 other kids.”

He said he fit in more easily with his peers at Metro and built genuine relationships with staff. Fascinated with robotics, he grew close to the robotics team’s “den mother,” as he called him — teacher Shannon Ellis.

I knew I would make it

- Jason Jaeger


Ellis, who introduced Jaeger on the graduation stage, said his student has helped Metro build a rich technology program — sometimes while wearing a comical inflatable Godzilla costume.


“Jason began to trust what we had to say and began to listen,” Ellis said. “ ... Even if his first answer was no, he started to try to find ways to say yes.”

A few years ago, finishing high school didn’t seem possible, Jaeger said.

“When I got to Metro, I knew I would make it,” he said.

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