At Rockford Public Library (RPL), Leon Smith is “making it happen” for adults seeking a high school diploma. Smith serves as both RPL’s Maker Lab Manager and the Program Manager for their Adult Online High School program.

Since its launch in 2017, 58 adults have graduated through RPL’s partnership with Career Online High School. Smith, who served in the United States Air Force and then earned his bachelor’s degree, worked in education before finding his calling at the library. At RPL, he is clear about his mission: “When people come through my door, I don’t care why they need a high school diploma—my concern is how to help them get one.“

He believes in the “trickle-down” impact of education, which he knows can be good or bad depending on what adults model in the home. Many of his students are mothers who want a better life for their children but witness those children struggling in school. “When these kids see Mom doing homework at the table, all of sudden their own grades start improving,” Smith said.

Recently, Smith spoke to a room full of donors in Rockford who help fund scholarships for the Career Online High School program, often sponsoring one student at a time.

“You’re not just changing a life. You are changing generations. You’re breaking the habits that have held families down for a long time,” he said. “The situation is dire here in Rockford, with 500 students leaving the school system each year. We are trying to turn it around.”

It’s no surprise that Smith was recognized by Northwest Quarterly as one of 2023’s “25 Most Interesting People” in the region for his contributions to the community.

Smith takes a hands-on approach to managing the program. He requires students to enroll and start the Part 1/prerequisite course in his lab, where he can guide them in the right direction and address any technical concerns. He also helps students track down their high school transcripts. His favorite part of his job is logging in to the student management system and seeing that a student’s academic status has changed to from “Current Student” to “Pending Graduate”—then calling that student to say, “I knew you could do it.”

Smith’s belief in his students is as clear as his understanding of himself. “I am a service-oriented type of person and I love seeing people succeed. I love to see people come and work and be the best person they can be. That’s my joy.

Watch as one of Smith’s students describes her journey: