Tara Frazier, a Deltona High School graduate getting ready to start the spring semester at Daytona State College, lost her father when she was 13.
"My dad passed away two days before the school year my eighth grade year, April this month," Frazier said tearfully. "We lived in a hotel my 10th grade year -- it was really rough -- then I just stopped. I didn't want to do school anymore, I was so upset about not having a dad, I didn't have a lot of friends, gained a bunch of weight."
When Frazier had the courage to return to Deltona High her senior year she was way behind. She had to catch up on a year-and-a-half-worth of course work in her final year in high school and pass both Florida Standards Assessment English Language Art and Algebra 1 exams. If not, she would not receive a diploma and would not graduate.
"When I dropped out last year I didn't think I was going to college," Frazier said. "I didn't think I was ever going to be prom. I didn't think I'd be able to walk across the stage and get my diploma."
That was until Deltona High School graduation coach Franz "Mr. G" Goropeusheck encouraged her to apply for ASPIRE -- a Volusia County Schools test prep program that tutors 20 students in each of the district's 10 high schools to be able to fulfill their course requirements and pass either the SAT or the ACT to obtain a diploma.
Goropeusheck said without a diploma, opportunities later in life are limited. Most colleges require a high school diploma. Most careers require a high school diploma. Even the military requires a high school diploma.
"It's a gateway to the things that come next," Goropeusheck said. "When you don't have that you're starting out behind everybody else. If you're not moving in the direction you get involved in things going on around you."
High school senior Jakari Massey, who also is enrolled in the ASPIRE program, said that without it, he likely would have ended up flipping burgers.
"What would I have done?" Massey said. "Probably a fast-food job. Like every other kid statistically speaking without a diploma."
The Police Athletic League of Central Daytona Beach discovered many of the arrests in the area were of teenagers who didn't have high school diplomas and had turned to crime, according to Jose Navarro, minority achievement specialist at Volusia County Schools, who is directly involved in the ASPIRE program.
Navarro said PAL presented the problem to partner Daytona Toyota, which donated $100,000 to PAL to work with Volusia County Schools to get results.
The Volusia County School District, through Navarro, started the ASPIRE program to improve graduation rates and hired Goropeusheck as the graduation coach. "Student receiving a certificate of completion limits their post-secondary options and contribute to the school to prison pipeline issues facing our community," according to the ASPIRE program description. "This program will provide testing preparation to current 12th grade students who have not met the graduation testing requirements; have between a 1.8 and 2.3 GPA, and whose credits are on track for graduation."
ASPIRE tutors students twice per week after school for a total of 12 hours.
Tara Frazier, thanks to ASPIRE, is now back on track to graduate this spring.
"When you really want something you gotta work for it, even if it's hard, even if you've been through a bunch of crap, even if you want to cry every single day," Frazier said. "If I can get through high school, imagine how great life is going to be. I can get my cap and gown. I'm my dad's first kid to graduate."
Frazier said part of the motivation to apply for the ASPIRE program was for the scholarship she would receive: $150 for being accepted into the program and an extra $100 if she passed the SAT or ACT plus the cost of the test fee.
Frazier said that money meant a lot to her and her family.
She is eternally grateful for ASPIRE, she said.
"I want a good life," Frazier said. "I want to be that 40-year-old woman and look at my 10-year-old child and know she's going to be OK and get an education and she's going to get a good job and have a great life, that's what I'm worried about. And I'm only 18."
Navarro said Volusia County’s graduation rate is around 79%. ASPIRE lifts the graduation rate to 83%.