By Stephanie Lucero, CBS 11 News

RICHARDSON (CBSDFW.COM) – Dwayne Richards grew up on the tough streets of old east Dallas and decided survival included getting ‘jumped’ into a gang at the age of nine. At the age of 11 he and others even tried to rob a convenience store.

It was during those years that Richards also witnessed the shooting murder of a 12-year-old friend. “I think of about him everyday, constantly,” the teenager said.

As a boy Richards was heavily involved in gang activity, a form of survival, he says. But things have changed, the now 18-year-old is president of his senior class at Evolution Academy Charter School and about to receive his high school diploma.

“I knew I was smart, but I never thought I was book smart,” says Richards. “I always knew I was street smart.”

Richards is among more than 200 seniors graduating this Thursday. His aunt, who he lives with now, will be at the ceremony, along with his mother and two brothers.

The graduation will be a very proud moment for a number of reasons, including the fact that Richards will be the first in his family to receive a high school diploma.

The teenager hopes to attend Southern Methodist University and one day become a sports journalist. “I like broadening my vocabulary for the simple fact, because I know communication makes the world go round. Without communication we have nothing,” said Richards.

Lynn McCall, Richards’ student advisor, believes the young man is destined for greatness and can accomplish anything he sets out to. “He came in our doors as a broken kid,” McCall remembered.

About two years ago Richards had dropped out of school, his mother was in jail and he was living with his girlfriend and her mother near Evolution Academy. One day his girlfriend’s mother stopped McCall in the parking lot to ask questions about the charter school. The next day Richards enrolled.

McCall says Richards is respectful, doesn’t cause problems, and is viewed on campus as a leader. “I see him being someone who we will definitely look back on and say, ‘You know that kid? He was mine,’” she said proudly.

Richards says he knows who paved his road to success and possibility. “I thank God every day because he played the biggest part in it,” the teenager said matter-of-factly. “If it wasn’t for Him [God] I wouldn’t be here today. I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’d probably be like my friend and got killed.”

Evolution Academy founder and CEO Cynthia Trigg says up to half of the students enrolled are referred to the charter school by Judge John Payton, a truancy judge in Collin County.

The school has an 18-to-one student/teacher ratio and provides an individualized curriculum schedule for each student.

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