A gymnasium filled with friends, families and supporters on Thursday evening celebrated the accomplishments of local students who overcame adversity to graduate this year from the Lawrence school district’s Adult Learning Center and Diploma Completion Program.
Sixteen of this year’s 48 graduates attended the ceremony at Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Center, 2920 Haskell Ave. The graduates included nine who earned diplomas from Free State High School, 18 who earned diplomas from Lawrence High School, and 21 who earned GED, or high school equivalency, diplomas.
Superintendent Anthony Lewis called the annual ceremony his favorite each year, noting that students who complete school on a nontraditional path deserve to be recognized for overcoming obstacles that most don’t face.
“Many of our students who complete traditional high school go through challenges during those four years as well,” Lewis said. “But these scholars, they stopped. And they could have just given up, but they didn’t. This is the true definition of perseverance.”
Principal Bill DeWitt was joined by Lewis and school board President Erica Hill in making comments during the ceremony and then presenting diplomas to the graduates.
In her comments, Hill said she hoped students had felt challenged and supported by the adult education program, and that it had helped them find their inner strength.
“I wish I knew each of your personal stories,” Hill said. “I want to acknowledge your perseverance, and I admire you for finishing strong.”
Graduate Charlie Linkous said he had come to the adult education program after struggling with fellow students in a traditional school setting. He said school had been difficult because he felt misunderstood and not completely safe.
The adult education program enabled Linkous to finish with a diploma and get back on track with the hope of someday becoming an astrophysicist.
“School was really hard,” he said. “I felt kind of like people were out to get me. So I ended up in day school toward the end, and then I had to drop out and get my GED. Now I’m going into college. I plan to start out at Johnson County Community College and then move on hopefully to Cal Tech.”
Deven Ryan said he was happy to have earned his LHS diploma after spending some time in juvenile detention and falling two years behind his classmates.
He gave credit to his teachers in the adult education program, saying that they became true advocates on his behalf. He said he hoped some would remain his friends.
“I appreciate all the work they did for me and I feel like it made it 10 times easier,” Ryan said. “I felt like it was important that I had [a diploma], and that when I got out I would be more successful. So I finished!”
Studies compiled by HealthyPeople.gov show that a high school diploma or equivalent not only improves a person’s employment prospects and earning potential, but also their physical and mental health.
Graduate Jessica Dibble said she was already on a better path after having joined the adult education program as a recovering drug addict. She said her recovery process led her back to school when she realized that a diploma would help her “move forward in life.” She gives credit to the program for helping her get through some difficult subjects.
“The teachers were amazing,” Dibble said. “They really helped guide me through any struggles. I almost gave up in math, but [teacher] Nick [Marshall] was like, ‘You’re not giving up — you can do this.’ So I did it, and I passed. It was amazing.”
According to a 2007 study from Columbia University, for each year of high school that a student completes, their lifetime wealth increases by 15%. The study states that “lifetime earnings for male and female high school graduates, respectively, are $117,000 to $322,000 and $120,000 to $244,000 higher than for high school dropouts.”
Charlea Rockhold got to watch her son, Trey, earn a diploma from LHS after entering high school as a promising athlete, but then struggling after falling into a different crowd of friends. She said that she, too, had finished high school a year later than her peers. On Thursday she hugged her son as both fought back tears of joy.
“He’s done really well for himself after finally listening to his mama,” she said. “It took some perspective, but then he finally went back. We’re so proud.”
The USD 497 program, which began in 2004, is one of about 50 adult learning centers across the state of Kansas. Although the programs are certified and overseen by the Kansas Board of Regents, only a few are offered through school districts.
DeWitt, who took over as principal of adult education services and alternative programming in July 2018, called Thursday’s celebration a joyous night and thanked the crowd attending for supporting their students and cheering them on. He said education was “a tough business” but the students in the adult education program were a regular reminder of why teachers “keep doing what we’re doing.”
During his comments, he congratulated the students in attendance but reminded them that graduation is only their first step to reaching even higher goals.
“This graduation is a huge accomplishment,” DeWitt said. “I know this is only one in a series of accomplishments, so keep going. Keep doing what you’re doing, and we will continue to follow your careers and be a resource whenever or wherever you need us.”
More information and enrollment dates can be found online on the USD 497 Adult Education Services website.
Photos by Molly Adams, mollyreneeadams.com
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