TAMPA — Yahisha Jimenez slipped her arms into a silver gown and perched a mortarboard on her head.
Her principal, Bobby Smith, straightened the tassel so the silver and maroon colors streamed neatly to the left.
Jimenez smiled at her image in a mirror at Seminole Heights High School.
"My mom is going to be so happy," she said.
Jimenez, 21, had stopped by her school with her 18-month-old daughter, Emma, to pick up extra tickets for proud friends and family.
She graduates tonight with about 25 other students who most people thought would never see this day.
Their stories are rife with struggles. They come from foster care, single-parent homes or no home at all. Some are pregnant or new immigrants. More than 90 percent are poor. On average, they lag three years behind in school.
The school, at the corner of Florida Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, serves 400 students. This August, it expanded to another site, West University Charter High School at 1401 E Fowler Ave.
They are public high schools with a mission to help students ages 16 to 21 who have dropped out or who are on the verge of dropping out.
Dwynne Robinson, 19, dropped out of Leto High School after other kids bullied her. One of the first students when the Seminole Heights school opened in 2010, she came in with just five credits. Earlier this week, she completed the 24 needed to graduate. She says she wants to be a role model for her five younger siblings.
So far, the school has seen 60 graduates. The staff works to build relationships and support the students, linking them to social services. They have paid for down payments on apartments and regularly dole out bus passes.
They helped Jimenez get free day care for her daughter. Emma is Jimenez's motivation. The baby's father is in prison and Jimenez lives with her mother in Temple Terrace. She wants a future for her daughter that won't depend on anyone else. She plans to attend Hillsborough Community College in August and major in criminology. She wants to be a police officer.
These graduates will make space for students on a waiting list.
During the three-day orientation, Smith, the principal, tells potential students how he grew up in Sulphur Springs with his parents, neither of whom graduated high school. He saw how hard they worked. He listened when they told him they wanted more for him.
He tells them he wants them to be informed. Decide if you want to come here or somewhere else.
"You decide if this is the place for you," he said.
Jimenez said she knew it was right for her. She had been hardheaded when her mother warned her years earlier to stay focused. Instead, she spent time with her boyfriend and got pregnant during her senior year at Chamberlain High School.
"I slacked," she said. "I was never in school."
She had only needed two credits to graduate. Today, 20 people are coming to watch her walk across the stage at Hillsborough High School, where the ceremony is being held. Afterward, they will celebrate at Bahama Breeze.
For her, it's a matter of proving herself. At one point, she said, she too, had doubted she would make it.
"I actually did it. I'm so proud of myself," Jimenez said.
"I am too," Smith said.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.