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ALC graduates celebrate overcoming obstacles

Jovanie Aquirre receives a congratulatory hug from Kim Ness Friday following the 25th annual Willmar Area Learning Center graduation ceremony at the Willmar Education and Arts Center Auditorium. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- When seven students received their high school diplomas from the Willmar Area Learning Center Friday, the cheers and tears in the audience weren't just coming from friends and families.

Their teachers were cheering just as loud, and some of them turned on the waterworks, too.

The graduation ceremonies for the Willmar School District's alternative high school are usually more informal because of the small size, but some things are the same.

The graduates in their red caps and gowns file in to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" and take their places on the stage in the auditorium of the Willmar Education and Arts Center. The superintendent and School Board chairman hand out diplomas and shake their hands.

The differences with other graduations aren't obvious on the surface. The reasons kids end up at the ALC are as varied as the students. Some are young parents, and the more informal schedule helps them. A more structured school environment may not work for others. Some may have gotten in trouble.

Regardless of the reason they end up at the ALC, reaching high school graduation is a huge milestone for many of its students.

At the end of a reception in the WEAC rehearsal hall, the teachers packed up the refreshments and talked about their students.

"Wonderful!" was the universal description of how they felt during the graduation ceremony.

"We've known some of these kids since they were in seventh grade," said communications teacher Connie Zabel.

Teacher Ross Dahl said he enjoyed "seeing them stick it out like that."

"I'm truly, genuinely proud," said Margret Hawley.

Science teacher Margaret Schmitz said she tries to get students to see how important graduation is.

The teachers called graduation days the highlight of their career and one of their favorite days each year.

During the graduation ceremony, ALC Alumni Donovan Wagoner told the graduates that he "barely graduated" from the ALC in 1996 but had found success since then. The diploma they were receiving was a symbol of overcoming adversity and a key to opening doors in the future, he said.

Deb Zinda-Hanson presented a $500 scholarship to Cassandra Garcia from the Willmar Civic Scholarship Association. She told the students that "I know the staff here loves you to death."

At the reception, Maryann Garcia said she was surprised when her daughter won the scholarship. Cassandra is the first of her children to graduate from high school, she said.

Cassandra, 19, sitting with her daughter Alexsa, 4, said there were times when she didn't think she would graduate. Asked what kept her going, she pointed at her mother -- "She pushed me every day to go to school."

Now, Cassandra is headed for Ridgewater College in the fall and is thinking about a four-year degree.

For Donavan Wold, almost 19, his grandparents who raised him, Pat and Jerry Lief, helped keep him motivated toward graduation. Donavan was always good about getting up and going to school, Pat Lief said.

Graduates attending the ceremony were Jovanie Aguirre, Garcia, Samantha Grannes, Maria Leal, Meghan Pogreba, Joel Rivas and Wold. Other ALC graduates this year are Tawnya Alvarado, Irvin Fernandez, Raa'heem Leach and Aaron Privette.

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

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