When counselor Derrick Thomas met the young woman he said is considered the first graduate in the history of Lexington's new Frederick Douglass High School, he worried that she was "about ready to give up" and on the verge of dropping out because she was behind in required credits.
That was in September 2017, right after the district's newest school opened. But Thomas said he was able to convince Al-Nisaa El-Shabazz, who he knew was "very smart", that if she took courses in Douglass' online Odyssey program she could catch up and possibly graduate early.
In a few months time, El-Shabazz completed the core classes she needed, including calculus. She finished her electives, and by December, she had completed her senior year. She will walk across the stage with her classmates on Friday in Rupp Arena at Douglass' first graduation.
"It was like a light bulb switched on," said Thomas. "She got in there and worked hard. It paid off for her. The next thing you know she was ahead."
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Prior to entering the program, El-Shabazz said she had lost motivation. In the past, she said she understood the academic material in her courses, but didn't always do her school work or attend class.
"The online program definitely motivated me to come to school more and to really get my work done. It wasn't busy work, " said El-Shabazz. She worked on her online courses in the mornings in a classroom with a teacher at Douglass and worked at a restaurant job as part of a co-op program in the afternoon.
Now, said Thomas, El-Shabazz is " bright eyed and excited and has a lot of hope."
In the past, "she's kind of had some ups and downs in her grades, but it's not because she wasn't able," said Denise Brown, El-Shabazz' mother. Going the traditional path has been a little difficult because she's just not a traditional student. Al-Nisaa is exceptionally smart, but Nisaa is very independent. She's the type of person if she's not feeling engaged, she just won't commit herself to do the work."
"Nisaa wants to be an entrepreneur. She wants to be a business owner," said Brown. "That's the thing that excites her most. She likes working. She likes making her own money. She bought her own car."
El-Shabazz, 18, said she will take business classes next year at Lexington's Bluegrass Community and Technical College.
"I want to start a housing business. I want to rent and sell houses," said. El-Shabazz, the youngest of four sisters. Right now she is working at a hotel in housekeeping.
El-Shabazz said she faced early obstacles. Brown said El-Shabazz' father was murdered in 1999 when she was three months pregnant with her. She said the case was never solved.
"Everybody needs a father in their life. That was something I never got," El-Shabazz said. But she said she had the support of her paternal grandfather and her mother, whose influence was one reason she looked for an alternative to dropping out.
"I did think about it," said El-Shabazz. "But ... I knew that my mother wouldn't approve. She's always wanted to see all her girls walk across the stage. I wasn't going to let her down."
El-Shabazz said she is grateful to Thomas, who she said is the best counselor she ever had.
"It is an accomplishment," El-Shabazz said of her graduation. "It's different than everybody else, but I got done what I needed."