The Belgrade School District requires that students have at least 23 credits in order to graduate high school. A normal student completes seven each year if they pass all their classes. Belgrade High School senior Emma Peterson started her junior with none and ended the school year with 16.5.
“Her situation was rare. It’s very difficult to come in as a junior with no credits. Usually we don’t see a whole lot of success with them graduating on time,” Peterson’s school counselor Erica Parrish said. “So she’s kind of like the unicorn.”
When Peterson enrolled in BHS in the fall of 2019, it was her first experience with public schooling. Prior to that, she’d been homeschooled her whole life. Although, she says her homeschool education was far from formal with little assistance and resources available. While she says her family taught her some basic and essential skills, “around third grade, my parents stopped teaching me as much.”
“My parents believed that I could do everything myself,” she said. “And that was really hard because I felt like I couldn’t. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and I know for myself that math was one of my weaknesses and I couldn’t figure it out myself.”
Realizing that she needed an education in order to officially graduate, Peterson began asking if she could attend classes, but her requests were denied.
“My parents said no to public school. They said no over and over. And that was really hard,” she said.
Shortly before turning 18, Peterson moved in with friends and decided to pursue her education on her own, although that meant largely starting from scratch.
“Because my parents didn’t really give me a high school education, I came into high school last year with zero high school credits as a junior,” Peterson said.
While she was given the option of taking the HiSET, an exam that allows test takers the opportunity to earn their high school equivalency credential, Peterson was determined to graduate. Though that goal meant she’d have to take a significant number of classes online and in person on an accelerated timeline.
“I wanted to actually do the work,” she said. “I wanted to earn it.”
She was placed at Belgrade Alternative High School, which is essentially a credit recovery program with online core courses and teachers available to assist as well in person.
Parrish said typically in a case like hers they would say “the only way to mathematically graduate on time” would be to graduate through the Alternative School. However, Peterson was able to amass so many credits last year that she is taking all of our classes at the traditional high school this year.
“She’s definitely gone above and beyond. The reason she works so hard is she wanted to take those elective classes that aren’t offered at the alternative school,” Parrish said. “She worked her butt off junior year in order to be able to have a regular schedule senior year.”
“From my experience there she’s the first one that achieved that many credits in that short of time,” Belgrade Alternative High School Department Chair Beth Cusick added.
Peterson said it was tough to get used to school and having homework, but that she was excited and motivated to be there.
““It was hard at first but I also found I really, really enjoyed the structure of it,” she said. “The most challenging part of it was math.”
She said that in order to get a grasp on the subject, she approached the math teachers at the high school for help and worked come in early in the mornings or during lunch.
Cusick said that she witnessed Peterson working hard and persevere in order to be successful.
“She advocated for herself very well,” she said. “She went to other teachers and said, ‘I just don’t get this math, can you help me?’ ”
With the opportunity to actually take electives this year, Peterson said her favorite class is now Psychology. She plans to study the subject further at Carroll College next year and become a counselor with the aim of assisting and supporting others.
“I want to be that person that I wanted in my life. That I needed,” Peterson said. “I want to be that person, especially for adolescents, to encourage them.”
She’s also been accepted at the Honors College at Carroll and hopes to get involved in the Speech and Debate there, as she has been an active member of BHS’s club. She looks forward to challenging herself even further there and continuing her education.
“I really love learning. I think just having two years of school I appreciate it more than most people,” Peterson said. ““I really feel like I tapped into a whole new world. I didn’t know how much there was.”
Parrish said her enthusiasm and “hunger for learning is incredible.”
“She’s always looking for ways to learn more,” she said. “She is just so pumped about what’s next. It’s like a kid at a candy shop.”
Peterson said she doesn’t carry any ill will towards her parents for not allowing her to attend school previously, but that she is grateful to everyone in her life who helped her with her education, even when it was difficult. She said that their support and her Christianity were key to getting her to accomplishments.
“It’s only because of my faith and the people who believed in me that I am where I am.”