The turning point for Mikayla Martin came during her freshman year at South Portland High School. The way Martin remembers it, a special education case manager warned her that if she didn’t make some changes, she wasn’t going to amount to much. Martin admits that she had little interest in school at the time and wasn’t doing well in her classes, but the case manager’s words still stung.

“That put me in the mindset that I might as well drop out,” recalls Martin, 18, who says she had difficulty learning subjects outside her personal interests.

Lisa Tellefsen, a guidance counselor who knew Martin loved children and enjoyed babysitting, intervened. She enrolled Martin as a sophomore in the early childhood occupations program at Portland Arts and Technology High School, which serves high school students throughout Greater Portland.

Usually geared toward juniors and seniors, the program prepares students to care for and teach children to age 8. It proved to be a perfect fit for Martin, especially with an on-site child development lab that cares for children in the community.

“I knew the first day I walked into the class, I was in the right place,” she says.

This month, Martin graduates from both South Portland High School and the PATHS program. She was one of 10 Maine students who were semifinalists in the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program, one of the nation’s highest honors for high school students.

A year ago, Martin became the youngest person in Maine to be certified as a child development associate, a two-year process that required her to complete 120 hours of training, 480 hours working with children, six professional essays and a certification exam.

And Martin already has a full-time, professional job lined up – a rarity among most high school graduates. She will be a lead teacher of infants and toddlers at the Children’s Time Child Development Center on outer Broadway in South Portland, where she worked every afternoon in the months leading up to graduation.

“I’m going out with a bang,” Martin says. “I couldn’t be more happy about where I am today. I’m grateful that I got an opportunity to go down a path that’s very different from the one I was going down my freshman year.”

Read all 2017 graduates to watch profiles.

— By Kelley Bouchard