By Kim West
Stories of sheer willpower characterized the fourth graduating class from the Ombudsman Center as 43 students received their high school diplomas Monday evening at Athens State University.
The class featured at least three seniors from each of the Limestone County high schools — Ardmore, Clements, East Limestone, Elkmont, Tanner and West Limestone.
Clements senior Brenna Norman battled back from a serious car accident a year ago that left her in a coma for two months, while two of her Ombudsman classmates overcame a lack of transportation to the center’s location in the Publix shopping center.
One student rode his bicycle daily more than 15 miles from West Limestone wearing a bright orange paintball vest loaned by Ombudsman director Heather Brown, and another walked several miles each school day from Capshaw.
The beaming students wore caps and gowns in their school colors and sat among more than 200 friends and family in the packed and sweltering ASU ballroom. At least 200 more onlookers stood along the walls, in one of the three doorways or in the equally crowded lobby.
Elkmont senior Luis Leon, 17, who had 40 family members at the ceremony, plans to work in construction. East senior Shayquon Bradley, 19, is joining the Marine Corps, while Elkmont senior Christopher Boley, 18, plans to study welding at Calhoun Community College.
East Limestone senior Elijah Smith spoke to the class about succeeding in life, and predicted his classmates would look back on their time in the program with fond memories.
“I actually enjoyed school this year. Whatever you do, have a purpose and strive to be the best like Ombudsman taught us … we’re all going to look back and think these years (were) the best.”
Jasmine Alexander and Rebekah Kobeck of Ardmore and Tanner senior Kristopher Jamar won the President’s Award for Educational Excellence. Norman and East senior Molly Bates received the President’s Award for Educational Achievement. Elkmont senior John Wayne Todd, who strode across the stage wearing cowboy boots, collected the American Citizenship Award.
School officials said they appreciated the use of the ballroom since Athens State does not charge a facility fee. But next year they hope to move the ceremony to a larger space because the program has grown since Limestone County Schools and Ombudsman began its partnership in August 2009.
The program was started to improve the graduation rate among the Limestone district’s nontraditional learners. Students are referred to Ombudsman if they are behind in course credits, or have adult responsibilities that prevent them from being successful in a traditional school setting.
“There is a misconception that we have bad students but we don’t have bad kids. They are just behind in their credits for a variety of reasons, and this is their second chance,” said Brown, who paused momentarily during the ceremony when she mentioned the students who biked or walked to the center. “This year it was more emotional because of students that worked so hard, and we worked so hard with them.”
Brown said all graduating students in the program receive a state-sanctioned diploma. She said some students also earn the traditional district diploma if they meet the requirements of their home high school and pass the state graduation exam.