The first day of kindergarten couldn’t come soon enough for Keita Hemphill.
“From Day One, she was like, “I want to go to school!” her mother, Charlestina Hemphill, recalled. “Even from 2-years-old, she was like, ‘I want to go to school.”
Now a junior at Steel Valley High School, Keita’s precocious nature placed her in pre-kindergarten and the Head Start program earlier than most children. When it came time for kindergarten, the Hemphills decided on Propel Homestead, even though it required a wait list.
“When they finally got her in there, it was easy because it was right up the street. I was able to take her to school,” Charlestina said. “The school was basically a convenience. I thought it was a good school at the time, but over the years, it was hard because the school wasn’t what it was supposed to be.”
As Keita wound her way through elementary school, Charlestina was disappointed by what she considered a lack of attention from certain teachers. If Keita was stuck on an assignment or struggled with a particular concept, the Hemphills felt she wasn’t getting enough assistance. Still, they stuck with it as Keita began to prepare to make the transition from eighth grade at Propel Homestead to ninth grade at Propel Andrew Street High School
Before her freshman year, however, Keita and her mother discussed the possibility of transferring to Steel Valley.
“I had been talking about going to a new school since I was in eighth grade,” Keita said. “At Propel, it only goes from K to 8th for the elementary and middle school. I wanted to go to a real high school because Propel isn’t necessarily a “real” high school.”
Charlestina struck a deal with her daughter: If Keita made it to school on time every day during her ninth-grade year, they’d look at moving her to Steel Valley for tenth grade.
Her freshman year turned out to be far more difficult than they could have possibly imagined. There were substantial conflicts with the Propel administration, including a former principal.
“I was on the cheer team, and she took that away from me,” Keita said. “I just didn’t really like the school after that. I didn’t really have the motivation.”
Following the difficulty of her ninth-grade year, Keita spent tenth grade in online classes. The Hemphills gave Propel one last shot.
“It was like a week into school and the principal started on her again,” Charlestina said.
The conflict with the administration was too much for Charlestina and her daughter to take.
“With me, I’m a working single parent. My daughter’s safety always came first with me,” Charlestina said. “I knew it was time that I had to remove my daughter from that situation.”
With the start of the school year still fresh, Charlestina connected with Steel Valley High School principal John Strom. She filled out the paperwork, submitted the forms, and within a day, Keita was a Steel Valley student.
“Mr. Strom was really patient with us. He’s an excellent principal, from what I’ve seen so far,” Charlestina said. “I encourage more kids to leave Propel and to come to Steel Valley. I really do. It’s a step in the right direction.”
The transition for Keita was relatively smooth. Her brother, Jeasean, had just begun his freshman year at Steel Valley when Keita joined him at the high school.
“It’s his first year as well, so it was like we were both coming in together,” Keita said. “And I grew up with everyone that’s here, so it wasn’t really that hard switching, because I knew them.”
She’s settled in academically, too. English was always a strength of hers, but she’s seen improvement in math, too, including a better grasp of Algebra.
“I really stunk with math at Propel,” Keita said. “It wasn’t the teacher; it was just the way they were teaching it and I couldn’t grasp onto it and really understand it well.”
Next year, she’s hoping to get more involved in extracurriculars, including a return to cheerleading. In the meantime, she’s busy working at Panera Bread and contemplating what she wants to pursue after graduation. She’s thinking about the medical field and possibly becoming a nurse but, like a lot of high school students, acknowledges that could change.
While Keita ponders her future, Charlestina has seen a change in her daughter’s present.
“When she was at Propel, she would be like, ‘I hate this school.’ And it made me miserable because my child was miserable. I know how it feels to be somewhere you don’t want to be. Your stomach starts hurting before you go into the building,” Charlestina said.
“She comes home with a smile on her face. I haven’t seen that smile since elementary school. I see the passion in her now.”