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'Hard wake-up call' gets Pasco High grad back on track

Leah Walton, 18, is Pasco High School’s 2017 turnaround student. She will graduate tonight, which once was in doubt.
Published May 24, 2017

DADE CITY

Go back a year or so, and the odds were pretty much against Leah Walton graduating high school on time.

"She was a hot little mess — skipping classes, not doing her work," said Pasco High School career resource specialist Mignon Edwards.

Walton was a bright, articulate kid with lots of potential "just floating off into the abyss," according to Sharon Swonger, her 10th-grade English teacher.

"She was completely off track," said guidance counselor Ashley Amiot "I honestly thought she would end up having to go for her GED or just dropping out."

Remarkably, that didn't happen.

It's been a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of year for Walton, 18, and her hard work has paid off.

Tonight, Walton will be among an expected 330 graduating seniors to turn their tassels during the Pasco High commencement.

"I can't be more proud of her," said her dad, Scott Walton.

"It's a phenomenal achievement," said instructional assistant of discipline Mary Collige. "I think it's a powerful message for others."

"I just love her to pieces, and I am super proud of her," said Swonger. "I look forward to seeing what her successes will be."

The collective sigh of relief puts some wind to the back of a young woman who admittedly almost blew it. A knowing grin spread across her face upon hearing that she'd been described as a "hot little mess."

"I was," Walton said matter-of-factly as she walked the school campus between taking final exams, her waist-length hair draped over the Boston Red Sox baseball jersey she was wearing simply because it was handy.

Born in Washington, D.C., Walton is a Nationals fan. But, she offers, "Boston would be a cool place to live — maybe an endgame."

Walton already has moved around some. She changed schools five times while living intermittently with her mom or her dad, mostly on the east coast of Florida. She moved to Dade City with her mom, stepfather and two younger siblings at the beginning of her freshman year.

She's warmed to the community feel, but Dade City was a little more rural than she was used to.

Walton worked hard at part-time jobs, intent on buying a car, her dad said. Her education, however, wasn't a priority.

"I didn't care about school. I wasn't interested," Walton said. "I knew I could do the work, but just didn't do it. Sometimes I did the work, but I didn't pass it in. I just didn't care."

Then came a turning point.

Walton spent the summer between her junior and senior years working for her uncle's hotel lock business, a job that took her to resorts in Alaska, Utah and throughout Florida.

"I saw killer whales, humpback whales," she said wistfully. "I caught a 35-pound halibut and ate it for dinner. I kayaked Orca Bay. I saw mountains. I didn't get much sleep because the sun didn't go down."

"It opened my eyes," said Walton, who took Polaroids of her travels and pasted them alongside her musings in a journal. "I was seeing things I had only seen on TV. I realized the world is a lot bigger than where I've been — that I'm so small compared to the rest of the world."

The rest of the world, she decided, was something she wanted to experience more.

But first, a rude awakening — a serious talk in the school guidance office at the beginning of her senior year.

"It finally hit me when they told me, 'You're not going to graduate. You're not going any place. You're going to stay here,' " Walton said. "I realized that I wouldn't get to see the things I wanted to see. It freaked me out. I knew I had to do something really fast. It was a hard wake-up call."

She told her counselors, "Tell me what I need to get out of here."

Then she did it.

Walton recovered credits through the school's APEX Lab, a graduation enhancement program for those who have fallen behind. She sought out teachers for extra-credit work and studied hard for her exams. She haunted the guidance office to check on her progress.

Along the way, she was buoyed by a support system within the school and beyond.

"My family helped me believe in myself," Walton said. "They knew I didn't need their help. They just let me know I could do it. Now I'm on track. I'm getting, A's, B's, C's for the first time. I'm proud of myself."

"I did know she had it in her all along," said her mom, Tara Dawson. "I am extremely proud of her and do admire all the work she put into it because she did work hard this year."

"She was struggling with a couple of things, but she just set her mind to doing better," said her dad.

Pasco High teacher Steve Penta was a saving grace, helping her understand math. Collige, who saw potential beyond the discipline referrals, provided incentive with heart-to-heart talks.

"She helps me understand my purpose," Walton said of Collige, noting a rough start to their relationship. "I met her because I was in a lot of trouble."

"I think she just sort of came here not caring about herself," Collige said. "I think she really struggled with that. I told her, 'You're beautiful. Your soul is beautiful and once you realize that, you're going to soar.'

"She just really turned it around to where she realized life was important, other people's lives were important," Collige said. "Things really clicked, and she started changing."

Walton was one of several Pasco County students honored recently with the Pasco County Turnaround Achievement Award, something she said caught her off guard since she had been working quietly on her comeback "and didn't think anyone really noticed."

She also received the Jan Henrick Achievement Award, which recognizes students who have overcome obstacles to achieve better grades. During the school year, she volunteered for Toys for Tots and took the role of the dead prom queen in the school's 2017 Prom Promise, a dramatization of what can happen when young people drink and drive. It hit home in the weeks before the event, when a friend of Walton's was killed in a drunken driving wreck.

Walton's future includes another move to Winter Garden to live with her dad. She plans to apply to the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

"I'd like to become a criminal justice paralegal. I watch a lot of Criminal Minds," she said with a smile.

Walton is on a roll, but she does have advice for those currently wandering aimlessly through their school years.

"If I could have told my freshman-year self to get it together, I would," she said. "You need to take it seriously. You don't want to have to see the world through a TV screen."

Contact Michele Miller at mmiller@tampabay.com Follow @MicheleMiller52,

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