Denise Day will never forget the period of time around her 16th birthday – even if she tried.
That’s when her mom was arrested for having several outstanding warrants and writing hot checks, and then was convicted and sentenced to jail.
In the days after, the now-18-year-old entered into Arkansas’ foster care system for a three-month wait.
Despite the unfortunate turn of events that led Day to end up in North Idaho, she’ll be taking part in a ceremony that might not have happened had she let her hardships interfere with her schoolwork. Day is one of about 30 Project CDA students set to walk across the stage at graduation and accept their diplomas – the culmination of personal commitment, encouragement and friendship that she’s found at the alternative high school.
“We’re a pretty tight-knit group of people,” she explained, adding that the school has always had a bum rap. “Everybody thinks that Project is the place that all the bad kids get sent to, but it’s not. We’re all good friends, and we really help each other.”
Day, who moved to Coeur d’Alene after her biological father was granted custody of her, came to the area as a sophomore. After enrolling in Project CDA, she said she found a sense of community that drove her to become a better student.
“I like it a lot,” Day said about the school, adding that there were several teachers who she felt she could always turn to on a bad day.
Project CDA, which stands for Creating Dropout Alternatives, is an alternative high school helping students who struggled in traditional instructional settings become successful graduates. According to the school’s Web site, “smaller class size and a variety of teaching methods that motivate the hard-to-reach student makes this an award winning program.”
Day is a prime example of the school’s successes.
“All of our kids have gone through something that has made it possible for them to be here,” said Jeri Midgley, a counselor at Project. “Like most of our kids, she has gone through something and that’s made her stronger. She’ll do great in life.”
Day is described by her teachers as a soft-spoken but bright and inquisitive student who’s really come into her own in recent years. She even took the initiative to help kick off the fundraising for the first prom at Project CDA in three decades, Midgley said.
“She has changed quite a bit,” the counselor offered. “Denise really helped get the prom project going, which was the first in 30 years. I’m really glad she came here. She is just an extraordinary kid.”
Day, an Arkansas native who was “pretty quiet and shy” as a kid, has learned to deal with adversity in ways many teenagers can’t imagine, even if her Southern accent occasionally creeps back out every once in a while when she gets upset. Since enrolling at the school, she’s maintained a solid 3.6 grade-point average, and credits the small class size and support of teachers, faculty and fellow students at the alternative high school for her success.
“I’d say I’m most proud of just graduating,” she said. “No matter what happens to you, if you want to do something you can still do it.”
She added that in addition to the camaraderie of her classmates, she’s grown to love the rugged, natural beauty of North Idaho.
About her background, Day is understandably blunt. “It sucked,” she said. Making the transition to a new town and a new school system, she continued, “it was hard, but I’m glad that I did it because it made me a stronger person. It’s hard to be thrown into a new household, but I like it a lot here.”
In spite of what she’s gone through, though, Day has always been a strong-willed student, according to Project CDA history and government teacher Sue Spafford.
“She doesn’t complain. Some students get the woe-is-me attitude. Denise never has, and has just stepped up to the plate,” she said. And her ability to build strong relationships with classmates as well as staff members, Spafford added, “I think it has helped make her stronger. She doesn’t dwell on herself.”
Day plans on pursuing a nursing degree at North Idaho College in the fall. She said she’s “always been interested in the medical field. The things that the human body can do are amazing.”
Spafford, however, offered her own take on why Day would make a great contribution as a nurse. “I think she will be a remarkable nurse because she has empathy. She’s very respectful of the staff and of other students,” she said. “She has a really great attitude and is a great role model. I see her going well beyond the nursing part and becoming a supervisor or something similar someday.”