Banners of various colleges hang in a room focused on post-grad options in Jeffersontown High School. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

After four years of classes and tests, more than 6,100 Jefferson County Public Schools high school seniors will be graduating from the district’s 24 high schools this weekend.

For many of them, it has been a whirlwind final few weeks, full of exams, senior class activities and graduation practice.

On the day of graduation practice at Jeffersontown High School, the secretary said it had been a blur. Jimmy Wallace, a school counselor, said he had been at the school for over 13 hours the day before — a record, he joked.

But for some students, the final month symbolizes the end of a long race, four years of clearing life hurdles to get their diploma.

Insider spoke with three graduates who overcame obstacles on the path to graduation. One mourned the loss of a close friend. One was on the rebound after years of negative peer influences. One balanced school, work and taking care of his mom while maintaining his mental health. All three are set to begin college in Louisville in the fall.

Danisha Malone | Courtesy JCPS

Loss of a best friend

Sitting underneath dozens of colleges’ pennants in Jeffersontown High School’s “college room,” senior Danisha Malone recounted the times death or near-death experiences nearly knocked her off track.

Malone lost her aunt her sophomore year, she said, making her grades suffer. Soon after getting back on track, many of her friends were shot on the streets. All survived, she said, but it again took a toll on her schoolwork.

“I take it as a blessing because I want for my kids to have better than that,” Malone said. “I don’t want my kids to ever experience it. I want a better life for them.”

Then she lost her best friend to cancer at the beginning of their senior year, canceling several plans the two had made. “We was supposed to do a lot of things this year,” Malone said.

Trying to focus more on school and less on her loss helped, but “it’s always going to hit you when you feel like you need that person,” Malone said.

Her mom also pushed her to keep picking herself up, time and time again, she said.

“(My mom) knew that I could do more than what I was doing. At first, I wanted to stay home, but she said that I can’t get anything accomplished at home,” Malone said.

Malone will go to JCTC for two years before studying forensic science at a university. A forensics class her freshman year at Valley High School propelled her lifelong interest in the field, she said.

“I have to push myself more and tell myself that I’m doing it for the both of us,” Malone said of her friend.

Shelby Berry | Courtesy JCPS

Peer pressure

The afternoon of a 90-degree, sunny day, a Marion C. Moore Traditional School senior, Shelby Berry, walked into her counselor’s office, fanning herself and asking for a Band-Aid to cover a blister. She had been outside, helping special needs students at a freshman field day.  

She plans to help people in the future, too. After attending the University of Louisville, Berry plans to become an English teacher or continuing her Health Science Academy studies by going into the medical field.

While Berry will graduate Friday as one of the school’s Health Science Academies’ most improved students, her dedication to school wasn’t always there.

“I always wanted to fit in with everyone, especially with kids that weren’t necessarily the best kids,” Berry said. “I just wanted people to like me and a lot of times it caused me to make decisions that weren’t so good.”

Despite always enjoying coming to school, negative peer influence sometimes diminished Berry’s will to come to school early in high school.

During her junior and senior years, Berry took a step back, deciding she didn’t need their approval. “The only thing that matters is that I’m happy with myself,” she remembers thinking.

After, everything became more balanced, she said. Berry credits her teachers for helping her right her path and supporting her through mental health issues.

“Oh my God, they do everything,” Berry said. “The education is very important, but the support system that they implement is one-of-a-kind.”

As long as you’re doing right by the teachers, that’s what matters, she said.

Dustin Neel | Photo by Olivia Krauth

A balancing act

Donning a Dragonball Z shirt, a Jeffersontown High School senior, Dustin Neel, sat in an empty gym, looking at rows of folding chairs arranged for graduation practice.

His obstacles began four days after birth, when his mom became paralyzed on one side of her body. As he got older, he said, he assumed more and more responsibility between school and helping at home in the single-parent household.

At the end of his junior year, Neel began to struggle with anxiety, which he called his biggest barrier. After playing multiple instruments over seven years, he moved from the intermediate orchestra to first chair in the advanced orchestra in half a year, causing the anxiety to spike. 

“I was having breakdowns three times a day — mental breakdowns, panic attacks, all that kind of stuff,” Neel said. The beginning of senior year was kind of rough, he said, but through the help of his mom and his friends, he’s “cool and collected.”

Despite the series of challenges, Neel can rattle off an impressive list of achievements: Black belt, Eagle Scout, first chair in the orchestra, and a job.

He balances the demands by separating what he needs to do. At school, he does schoolwork. At home, he focuses on home stuff, he said.

“Because of that, I was able to be more focused on home life and school life,” Neel said. “It’s stressful at times.”

With help from the KYFAME program, Neel will go to JCTC — “virtually for free with FAFSA” he adds — where he’ll focus on engineering. Through the program, he will also have a job that ties into his studies in a comprehensive program. Eventually, he wants to combine his focuses of music and engineering in his own business making musical instruments.

Before joining Insider Louisville, Krauth was a multiplatform reporter at TechRepublic, where she wrote news stories and features about the intersection of technology and business. Krauth is a graduate of the University of Louisville, where she was an award-winning editor of The Louisville Cardinal and obtained a degree in investigative journalism, with a minor in Russian studies. She completed a prestigious Dow Jones data internship at the Austin American-Statesman last summer. Email Olivia at [email protected]


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