Success didn’t look the way Kishon Carter thought it would: A high school diploma collected on a warm spring day, followed soon after by four years on some college campus.

Instead, he graduated in the dead of winter, a few weeks before his planned departure for Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill., and Navy boot camp. He already has 39 college credits under his belt.

Every year, hundreds of city students for whom traditional school settings are a challenge earn diplomas through alternate routes. This month, 100 young men and women participated in the Philadelphia School District’s mid-year graduation, a ceremony remarkable because it represented 100 second chances.

“For some of our young people, the traditional high school just doesn’t work. Kishon is representative of multiple stories that come out of our Opportunity Network,” Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said of the district’s alternative schools.

Carter, who just turned 19, grew up in a tough West Philadelphia neighborhood with a mother who drove home the importance of education. He was smart and focused, pulling down good grades at Mann Elementary, which turned into a Mastery Charter School during his time there.

He could be a serious kid, Carter said. His father wasn’t in his life, he was an only child, and he felt compelled to step up for his mother.

“I’ve always been the man of the house,” he said. “I had to mature earlier to help my mom and take some weight off of her.”

By high school, things got tougher. Carter struggled at Boys’ Latin and then at the Charter High School for Architecture and Design (CHAD), where there were too many distractions, he said.

“Kids were immature, there were lots of fights, and it just seemed like my teachers didn’t want to teach," he said. "I didn’t want to go to school, and my grades were slipping and I was failing classes.”

In March 2017, Carter left CHAD during his sophomore year. He was 17.

It was a sobering time, and Kishon and his mother, Anita, knew he was at a fork in the road: Buckle down, or drift into the kind of future he never really wanted.

“It was hard, because I always said I never wanted a regular job, I wanted a career. But there weren’t a lot of people in my neighborhood who had that,” said Carter, who grew up near 33rd and Wallace Streets in Mantua.

Then Anita Carter found out about Gateway to College, a Community College of Philadelphia alternative program for Philadelphia School District students who have dropped out of school but show promise. It was a way to earn not just a high school diploma, but also credits toward a college degree.

It was as if a switch went off in Kishon’s mind: Here was his path, and he was not going to let anything get in his way. He made it through Gateway boot camp, passing all the tests that showed he was ready to tackle college work. He got assigned an academic adviser and committed to completing up to four hours of homework a night.

“I was really just determined to take advantage of every opportunity I had,” he said. “I wanted to thrive, and when I got to Gateway, I was just able to focus more."

Kishon Carter, 19, inside a classroom at CCP, where he finished high school with 39 college credits as part of a Philadelphia School Disrict alternative program.
MARGO REED / Staff Photographer
Kishon Carter, 19, inside a classroom at CCP, where he finished high school with 39 college credits as part of a Philadelphia School Disrict alternative program.

The idea of college classes was a little daunting, Carter said, but he found himself loving the experience, soaking up what professors had to say, challenging himself to learn more and focus on what came next. Instead of failing classes, he aced them — the ones that came easy to him, such as math and history, and even the ones where he had to work a little harder, including science.

“I always raised my hand,” he said. “I wanted to make the best out of every class. I want to be successful, to do everything right, to be a role model for people who come from a similar background."

He had to let some friends go, Carter said, but that was OK.

To say that Anita Carter is proud of the path her son forged after leaving his traditional high school is an understatement. His mother, who works as a property manager at a Germantown apartment complex, worried about Kishon, especially when he chose the wrong friends and couldn’t settle down in high school.

“As a parent, I stayed on him, but his focus just wasn’t there,” Anita Carter said. “When he got to Gateway, he learned his lesson, and it was just night and day.”

Carter devoted himself to classes so much that when asked recently what his hobbies were, it was hard to come up with something that wasn’t studying. (In whatever little time he wasn’t studying or helping out around the house, he said, he liked to play basketball and listen to hip-hop music.)

He became Gateway’s go-to guy, said Monifa Young, the director of the program, which can serve up to 130 city students. Carter was a fixture on the honor roll. He earned a place in the National Honor Society and often spoke to new Gateway enrollees. He won a paid internship, participated in leadership programs, and was even selected to speak at his graduation, representing 241 students not just in Gateway but in 12 district alternative programs.

“Kishon is an exemplar," Young said. “Even when he finished his courses, he would say, ‘Is there anything you need me to do?’”

As he gained confidence and college credits, Carter thought a lot about what was next. It felt right to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, a career Navy man. On Sept. 11, Carter formally pledged to join the Navy, and he heads to boot camp Tuesday. He wants to be a master at arms — essentially a military security specialist. He’s more than halfway to an associate’s degree, and will continue his studies with online courses, hopefully earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Old Dominion University.

“I want to see the world,” Carter said. “And by me being successful, that will show other people that there’s a way.”