- Associated Press - Saturday, May 13, 2017

BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) - A Liberty High School senior who overcame the death of a parent this school year to obtain a 3.8 GPA was given a surprise award of a $10,000 scholarship through the Beckley Area Foundation Monday evening.

McKenzie Simpson accepted the Sam and Maude Turner and Carol Ann Turner Scholarship during the LHS Senior Awards assembly. She had not been made aware of her award prior to the ceremony, school administrators said.

The scholarship is for $2,500 dollars per academic year for four years.

“She’s been a joy to work with,” said LHS Graduation Coach Terry Poe, who worked one-on-one with McKenzie to ensure her successful completion of high school.

Two years ago, the honor student had a 1.5 GPA. She was the only caretaker for her ill father, and she was juggling schoolwork with responsibilities at home.

McKenzie’s dad died last summer, leaving her as the only surviving member of her family line, LHS Graduation Coach Terry Poe said.

“When he passed away, she was the sole survivor of her family,” Poe said. “She has no brothers and sisters. Both of her grandparents have passed away.”

After her dad’s death, McKenzie moved in with a cousin, who gave her a home while she finished out her senior year at Liberty, he added.

“That’s how it all started,” said Poe. “We felt like she may need someone to work with, and that’s how I became involved.”

LHS administrators paired McKenzie with Poe, a graduation coach under the 20/20 Graduation Plan, funded by Regional Educational Services Agency (RESA). Established by the West Virginia Board of Education, the eight state RESAs provide professional staff development and technical assistance to low-performing schools.

House Bill 2711, passed in the past legislative session, slashes state funding to RESAs on July 1, 2017, giving the RESAs and each school district a year to form cooperatives and forge plans for continuing services.

LHS Principal Lori Knight credited Poe and the 20/20 plan as factors in LHS‘ higher graduation rate of 92 percent. Poe and Knight were acknowledged in February by lawmakers and state education officials for having one of the highest graduation rates in the state at Liberty, a rural high school with an enrollment of around 575 and an Advanced Placement participation rate of around seven percent, with economically disadvantaged students making up 45 percent of the student population, according to U.S. News reports.

“Even though we establish rapport with our students, and we have different avenues of doing that, the connection these graduation coaches make in mentoring this specific group of students really makes a difference,” Knight said. “(Students) have that one connection they can go to for any information.

“I really feel that’s made a big difference. We try as much as we can, but having that graduation coach, specifically there, for that reason, has a definite impact on them.”

Poe acknowledged the success of the 20/20 program and credited Knight and other LHS administrators for being “positive and goal-oriented” when encouraging students to graduate.

He noted that McKenzie’s situation reminds him of the song “Against All Odds,” but he reported McKenzie’s spirit has played a key role in her victory.

“She brought a good idea, a no-quit attitude,” he said. “She’s done everything we’ve asked her to do.

“She puts 100 percent into it, has a great attitude, great personality, looks for the good in people.”

Knowing that McKenzie will graduate with a scholarship that allows her to continue her education is “complete rewarding,” Poe said.

“That’s what education is all about,” he said. “She fulfilled every requirement you could ever think of.

“When she gets her high school diploma, she’s ready for the world,” Poe added. “If you don’t have that high school diploma, the possibility of success greatly decreases.”

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