Thousands of high school students from across the Las Vegas Valley are graduating this month, as one chapter of their lives ends and another begins.
About 40 miles northwest of Las Vegas at High Desert State Prison, a different group of students will have to wait a little longer to start that next chapter.
A record 160 Nevada inmates received their high school diploma or equivalency certificate last week through the Nevada Department of Corrections’ Youthful Offender Program and Adult High School.
DayShawn Jenkins, 25, used to dread reading aloud in school, because his classmates would make fun of him as he struggled and stumbled over words. He gave up on reading while in grade school.
But he credits Avery LeKrone, who teaches English in the Youthful Offender Program, for encouraging him to keep trying.
“He stayed with me and gave me courage to continue, like ‘don’t worry about it’ and ‘you’ll get it next time,’” Jenkins said.
LeKrone said Jenkins wasn’t the best student at first. He said Jenkins was combative and put in minimal effort. He was one of the students who joined the program just to get a few hours out of his cell.
But suddenly, Jenkins, who was sentenced in 2016 for attempted burglary, began showing up with a different attitude.
“I realized I wanted to make a change and be the first of my mother’s children to graduate high school or get a GED,” Jenkins said during his commencement speech. He read it from the podium and didn’t miss a single word.
His two young daughters, dressed in matching red sweaters, and his fiancée were there to watch Jenkins get his high school equivalency certificate. He said he wanted his daughters to see that he made a better life for himself despite past mistakes.
Bill Fisher, another English teacher at the prison, said the graduation was the proudest moment of his teaching career. He recently started teaching in the program, and the May 22 graduation was his first.
“Honestly, I enjoy teaching up here more than I did at comprehensive high schools,” Fisher said. “It’s refreshing to teach someone who knows what they want and wants to learn.”
Inmates also received certification in automotive technology and mechanics, culinary arts, heavy equipment, welding and entrepreneurship. Some picked up multiple certifications in addition to their diplomas or certificates.
Jenkins wants to get his welding certification before he gets out, so he can support his family.
Lakeisha Ward yelled “Thank you, Lord,” when her son’s name was called during the commencement. After 19-year-old Trayvon Ward walked the stage and shook hands with officials from the corrections department and the Clark County School District, she lowered her head and sobbed with relief.
A few months before his high school graduation in 2018, all Trayvon Ward had to worry about was which college he’d choose. He’d received offers for full-ride scholarships to play football.
Then he was sentenced to three to 10 years for shooting a firearm within a structure. He’ll be eligible for parole in two years.
“It’s hard,” Trayvon Ward said about his time in prison. “Everyone here wants to be a gangbanger, they want to be tough. They don’t want to see you succeed at anything.”
Lakeisha Ward said she’s visited her son every weekend for the past 14 months. She’ll keep visiting him every weekend until he gets out.
It’s been a long journey, she said. She was proud to see him graduate, even if it came a year later than she expected.
“For many of us this is years in the making. For others it took only a few months,” said Jeremiah Valentine, who received his high school diploma at age 40, just a few months before his release. He dropped out of school at 17. He was sentenced in 2017 for attempted battery causing substantial harm.
Trayvon Ward is staying in shape while he’s in prison, because he still hopes to play football in college and study marine biology.
“He switched it completely around,” Lakeisha Ward said. “I could not be more proud of him.”