Polk State Lakeland Gateway to College Collegiate High School staff member Lawerence Shipmon looks to provide the same hope to students that the school once did for him.
A long-term substitute and an adjunct professor, Shipmon, 21, graduated from Gateway with a high school diploma and an Associate in Arts degree in 2019. Three years later, he has returned while pursuing a doctorate degree.
“It really was nurturing when I got here,” Shipmon said. It was like an extension of my family. They held me accountable. That was something I really needed.”
For three years prior to enrolling at Gateway, Shipmon was identified by the school district as a McKinney-Vento student — considered homeless. Shipmon went back and forth between living with his paternal grandmother, maternal grandmother, and aunt.
“Once I came to Gateway, Dr. (Meesha) Downing(-Townsend), Mrs. Tania Chandler, Ms. Tanya Jones…became the parents I needed,” he said. “They just wouldn’t let me quit.”
Downing-Townsend was the Assistant Principal at the time. Now the Principal, she has seen the transformation firsthand.
“He was initially a playful young man,” she said. “He later got serious and took charge of his grades to the point where he was mentoring and tutoring other students. Since then, he’s been a leader here.”
Shipmon first came to Gateway in the fall of 2017 but spent the spring semester at McKeel Academy. Missing Gateway, he returned in the fall of 2018. During his time at Gateway, Shipmon served as part of the Student Government Association, Yearbook Club, and Future Business Leaders of America before graduating with honors in 2019.
“I always said that once I graduated college, I wanted to come back and get a job here,” Shipmon said. “A position opened up here, I applied, and everything has come full circle.”
When Shipmon first arrived at Gateway, he planned on becoming an actuary. Chandler later encouraged him to become a teacher. Since then, Shipmon has had a passion for education.
“The most rewarding thing is getting to inspire students who were just like me,” he said. “I wanted to work with at-risk youth. I use my experience to connect with the youth and prove to them that you can do anything. My ultimate goal is to become the Secretary of Education for the United States.
Just three years removed from being a student himself, Shipmon has been effective in selling Gateway to and easing the concerns of prospective parents and students.
“He’s been invaluable,” Downing-Townsend said. “He’s able to talk to these students and their parents from the standpoint of a Gateway student. He gives them a sense of calm, because he’s experienced it firsthand. He’s become one of our major marketers.”
Shipmon went on to earn his bachelor’s in Criminal Justice from the University of North Florida in December 2020. Since then, he’s attended St. Thomas University. Shipmon earned his master’s degree in Educational Leadership in May and is currently working on a doctorate in Education.
“It’s just amazing to see,” Downing-Townsend said of her former student’s progress. “Because we have a small student population, we can provide that one-on-one support that a lot of our students need. We have a lot of HEARTH (a Polk County Schools program that assists students who are homeless or in transition with resources) students, who sometimes need resources like food, clothing, or transportation. We get to really know these kids and their needs.”
Outside of work, Shipmon enjoys traveling, but even then, he does so with education in mind. While traveling, Shipmon likes to learn about new cultures and how they are educated.
“I use that to influence my decisions in the educational realm,” he added. “I look at what their resources are, how they manage them, and see how I can apply that here.”
At Gateway, students have access to a plethora of college resources and the ability to complete their associate degree in high school at no cost to them. Starting in the fall, Gateway will offer an “E3” technology academy where students are given mentors, find fields of interest through career pathways, and ultimately learn through workforce opportunities.
“When people think about Gateway, I want them to see endless opportunities,” Downing-Townsend said.
To that, Shipmon is a living testament.
“(Gateway) gives you the mindset of independence,” he said. “One of the most important things you learn here is how to stand on your own and be an advocate for yourself.”