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Jail didn't stop her from earning GED

The Wilson Times - 10/1/2020

Oct. 1--Markayla Smith thought she couldn't do it at first.

"I was getting frustrated," she said. "I didn't think I could pass it."

But with a little push and motivation from others, the 21-year-old achieved a significant milestone recently: She obtained her high school equivalency diploma while in the Wilson County Detention Center.

To honor Smith's achievement, Sheriff Calvin Woodard and his staff held a small graduation ceremony for Smith inside the sheriff's detective building. Social distancing and masks were required. While there were fewer than 10 people there due to COVID-19, Woodard wanted to make sure it felt like a real graduation for Smith, who's the first to obtain her GED through a program Woodard began in February.

"I know it was tough," Woodard told her. "But you did a great job. You can accomplish anything in life."

Not only did Smith wear a cap and gown, but officials played the ceremonial song "Pomp and Circumstance" as she walked to her seat, which was placed 6 feet apart from others.

Woodard and Capt. Marc Connor, Wilson County's jail administrator, gave inspirational speeches as if she were part of a true high school graduation ceremony.

Smith, who grew up in and out of foster homes, changed schools a lot. She eventually dropped out in ninth grade. Smith always had a goal of completing her GED. When the detention center offered her the opportunity, she jumped on the free program.


Woodard always wanted to offer those jailed and waiting for their cases to be resolved an opportunity to work toward their GED. Many detention facilities have expanded technology for those housed to be able to talk with their family or others while inside.

Woodard brought in dozens of tablets several months ago so those jailed can make phone calls or send text messages for a fee. The company provides the tablets at no charge to the sheriff's office.

Woodard realized the tablets could be used for free online classes, allowing detainees to prepare for the GED test. It was a no-brainer, he said. The tablets could serve as a dual purpose with no cost to taxpayers.

Woodard partnered with Wilson Community College. He said the college has been incredible to work with.


Smith took advantage of the free program and began completing all her coursework via the tablet.

In February, The Wilson Times featured Smith in an article noting she'd already completed several classes. Later on, once Connor found out Smith had completed most of the coursework and was nearly ready to take the GED test, he knew she needed that extra push to make her goal a reality.

"Markayla, you can do it," Connor recalled telling her. "I believe in you."

"Why me?" Smith asked Connor.

Connor said he saw something in Smith she didn't see in herself.

"I saw potential in you that you didn't see," Connor told her during the small ceremony. "I'm just so proud that you pushed forward. Please don't let this stop you. You did it."

Tears fell down Smith's face in that moment.


A few weeks ago, deputies took Smith to Wilson Community College where she took the GED test, which includes several sections and can take a couple hours for each one. While individuals can take the test all at once, some opt to take each section in stages. But Smith did it all in one day. She was there for nearly eight hours, Connor said.

The sheriff's office waited patiently for the results. Officials didn't doubt Smith's proficiency. But when they found out she passed the GED exam, they were elated.

"I feel like a proud father," Connor said. "We can say we have a success story. She's making history. This is not the end, but the beginning."


While educational opportunities are available at the prison level, officials say having that opportunity at the jail level isn't always an option.

And with Smith being the first to graduate from the Wilson County Detention Center's program, Woodard wanted to celebrate her achievement.

"With her being able to accomplish this, it inspires others to want to be a part of it," Woodard said. "I just hope it inspires people to let them know, no matter what situation they are in, it's not the final say in pursing their education."

Woodard said the program can propel people to continue their education, get a job after their cases are resolved and reduce recidivism.

"It gives someone an opportunity to make a better choice," he said.


After Woodard gave an inspirational graduation speech, he asked Smith to speak at the podium. Woodard arranged for her mother and two sisters to attend the ceremony, too.

Smith said she's grateful to all the deputies, Connor and Woodard for the opportunity to earn her diploma. She said she hopes to encourage others in the jail that they can do it, too.

"I want people to know that you can turn any test into a testimony," she said. "When I get done with my situation, I plan on furthering my education."


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