After Donovan Reed, 18, was sent to Silver Oak Academy after breaking his probation two years ago, it became clear to him he had fallen in with the wrong crowd.
He was ditching school to hang out with his friends, drinking and smoking, behavior that began when he was 12 after his grandmother died, his mother, Lawanda Reed, said.
"For a while I didn't think he was going to make it to 17 — he was out running around in the streets," Lawanda said. "I had to keep trying to convince him there is more to life than this neighborhood."
Donovan left his neighborhood in Ward 8 of Washington, D.C., to attend the residential high school for at-risk young men located in rural Middleburg in September 2013. He was one of 13 students awarded high school diplomas at Silver Oak's commencement ceremony Thursday.
"He has come a long way," said Brad Baer, workforce lead teacher at Silver Oak, who taught Reed health when the teen first began at the school. "When he first started he didn't want to be here."
Reed said earning his high school diploma wasn't easy.
"He came to us in one of the most difficult situations — he came to us as a [low-level] reader," Principal Catherine Gammage said. "But he never gave up … he wouldn't let that get in the way."
Reed said his greatest challenge was improving his reading skills. He was reading on an elementary school level when he arrived at Silver Oak, he said.
"With my classes being small, I really got to learn and actually get the attention that I needed to understand," he said.
Reed said teachers at Silver Oak helped him get up to speed by starting with the basics. Teachers began by revisiting the sounds that letters make and requesting that he make flashcards to memorize words. He was required to set aside separate time every day to read books for 30 to 45 minutes, he said.
"When he sees another student struggle, he's never afraid to step up," she said. "He's a true, born leader."
"He cares about learning — in Algebra II he's climbed to a high C," said Philip Ward, Reed's Algebra II teacher.
Ward said Reed cares about learning, is a leader in class and asks good questions. Ward also said Reed sets a good example for younger students, encouraging them not to copy homework or cheat on exams.
"If he sees them cheating or copying he gets really mad because he knows they're just cheating themselves," Ward said.
Reed, who was captain of the football team and a member of the wrestling team, said being involved in sports at Silver Oak helped keep him motivated to improve his grades. He had to earn a certain GPA to play.
When he attended Options Public Charter School in Washington, he was getting mostly D's and F's, he said. But at Silver Oak he was able to pick up his grades to A's, B's and C's, earning the distinction of valedictorian of his class.
Gammage said he also received the President's Award for Educational Achievement, which recognizes students who give their best effort, often in the face of significant obstacles, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Reed said he learned of his acceptance to Bowie State University on Tuesday.
"It felt so good because I thought I wouldn't graduate high school — now I'm going off to college. It's a big accomplishment for me and my mother," Reed said. He plans to major in business and received a partial scholarship to play football at Bowie State.
Lawanda Reed said she always knew her son was capable of attending college.
"He had to buy in that he was somebody — that he could make something of himself," said Lawanda, who also said she did whatever she could to provide emotional support for her son. "I am so proud of him — I'm hoping he can stay on this track and stay out of trouble, and not fall back into the same routine."
Reed credits his mother, who he said has always encouraged him to live up to his potential.
"She always supported me and helped me," Reed said. "She always motivated me when I was down and I wanted to come home."
Attending Silver Oak Academy helped Reed realize that he was capable of much more.
"I learned not to put a limit on what you can do. If you just try — you just push yourself until you can't push yourself anymore — you never know what you can be," Reed said.