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Students graduate from Focus House program in WIllmar, Minn.

Focus House graduate Daniel Dobransky of Willmar, left, is congratulated by Willmar Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard during a graduation celebration Tuesday at the Willmar Education and Arts Center. Tribune photo by Linda Vanderwerf

WILLMAR -- Dale Martin watched his son Spencer change and grow into a responsible adult in the past two years, thanks to Focus House.

Spencer, 21, has learned what it's like to have a job and has had a couple different ones, including one at the West Central Tribune.

"He's more punctual," said Martin, of Raymond. "He gets up by himself, gets ready and gets on the bus by himself."

Six students of the Willmar School District's Focus House program graduated officially on Tuesday. The program celebrated graduation at the rehearsal hall of the Willmar Education and Arts Center.

Focus House is a post-high school transition program for students with special needs that prepares them for independent living as adults. Focus House is based in a house in Willmar, where students learn how to prepare meals, clean and budget their money. The students also gain work experience and learn about volunteering and choosing leisure time activities. The program lasts through age 21.

Pete Dobransky of Willmar said has watched his son Daniel, 21, and his classmates blossom in the program. "The growth they've shown and that independence they've shown, being proud to do things" has been fun to watch, he added.

During the ceremony, staff members Amy Hennes and Vicki Henle thanked the parents, grandparents, teachers and others who contributed to the students' success. "Thank you for allowing us to be the program we are," Henle said.

"Make sure you keep a positive attitude," Hennes said to the students before they received diplomas from their home school districts. She asked them to remember what they had learned at the house about staying healthy and speaking up for themselves.

The students had written comments about each other, which Hennes read when each student came forward to shake hands with special education coordinator Janell Bullard and receive a diploma from Willmar Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard. The descriptions included things like "awesome," "happy," "smart," and "always ready to tackle anything."

Many of the students have work plans for the summer. Spencer Martin said he will be focusing on getting his driver's license.

Bullard thanked the school districts and the parents for sending students to the program. "It's so much fun to watch them grow," she said. "We couldn't provide this opportunity without your support."

Henle said graduation day is a bittersweet time for the staff. "They don't need us anymore, and that's the biggest compliment," she said. "It's hard for us to let them go."

The end of school is also a time of transition for students and families.

"We try to look at it like it's a new beginning," Dobransky said.

His son loves working and has enjoyed each job he's had. "He's happy working wherever he ends up," he said. "I hope it doesn't ever change."

The 2013 graduates include Willmar students Daniel Dobransky, Cody Somerville and Mandy Lush; New London-Spicer student Aaron Jensen; MACCRAY student Spencer Martin; and Paynesville student Zach Ludwig.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340