Graduation ceremonies mark the end of long road

By Clay Wilson

Patrick Henry High School's graduation at 2 p.m. Friday kicked off a weekend of celebrating local students' transition from high school to the next phase of their lives.

About 1,340 Henry County students will have passed through the gates of graduation by the end of today. The speeches will be made, the tassels turned, the goodbyes said and the tears shed.

Come Monday, the former Henry County School System students will be Henry County School System alumni. But first came the ceremonies.

Patrick Henry High School

Forty-one seniors at Patrick Henry were the first to cross the stage. Held at the school system's Performing Arts Center, the emotional ceremony reflected the unique nature of the county's alternative school.

"It's a shame that more people don't understand the service that this school provides ?," said Henry County Board of Education Chairman Ray Hudalla in his address at the ceremony. "Letting students accelerate their learning – or just work at their own pace – isn't that an awesome concept?"

As the county's alternative school, Patrick Henry provides an option for students for whom the traditional model of education just doesn't work. Some of the students are removed from the county's other high schools and placed at PHHS, while others choose to go there.

According to PHHS Assistant Principal Harry Kustick, the faculty at the school tailors instructional programs to students' individual needs, while still adhering to the state's required curriculum.

"We don't call our teachers ?teachers,' so much as facilitators of learning," he said.

One result of this individualized attention, Kustick said, is a special closeness between faculty and students.

"You develop a real connection to each kid ?," he said. " – When you see them succeed, it's like watching your own child succeed."

Many of the students reciprocated this sentiment. In a Patrick Henry tradition, seniors were allowed to address the audience.

"The first day I walked through the doors it was like, ?Whoa' – everybody knew me," said Christopher Lively.

But like any high school – perhaps more than others – PHHS was no cakewalk.

"It's been one of the longest, hardest, most stressful, but most rewarding journeys I've taken so far," said Jacqueline Knight.

Russell Bertschin, who was named the school's outstanding student by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in its Journal Cup program, agreed that the reward was worth the sacrifice.

"To officially be done, it's kind of the greatest thing," he said.

And Tham Truong, mother of graduate Tammy Truong, said she can't wait to see what comes next for her daughter.

"I feel great," she said. "I thank God for it. I look forward to her future."

Eagle's Landing High School

The venue was larger, the crowd was bigger and the traffic was slower, but the excitement and pride were no less palpable at ELHS' graduation Friday evening.

The families and friends of 394 seniors filled the Showcase Event Centre in McDonough, which has a capacity of 7,000.

"The crowd was a little larger than we anticipated," said Sgt. Carl Veasley of the Henry County Bureau of Police Services. Along with Henry County Fire Department Assistant Chief William Kelly, Veasley was commanding the police and fire personnel providing security and crowd control.

"We're hoping it won't be as problematic tomorrow – we're prepared to handle just about anything," Veasley said.

Traffic was gridlocked on the road leading to the center, prompting good-natured complaints from graduates' families.

"Mixed emotions," said Aliska Smith as she hurried to get into the building to see her daughter, Alicia Battiste, graduate. "I'm happy – and of course the traffic, having to sit over there for 15 minutes. That was chaotic."

Friday marked the first time graduations have been held in the Showcase Event Centre. In the past the graduations were held at each school, either in the football stadium or the gymnasium.

But once people got inside the new venue, the excitement of the occasion took over.

Salutatorian Karl Broder spoke about the time the graduates have spent at ELHS.

"As students, we may not remember every vocabulary word we learned, but we will remember the excitement of learning something new and interesting," he said.

Valedictorian Erin Mordecai talked about the graduates' future – which she said would be a journey of self-discovery.

"Many people will fail to realize that the entire purpose of the future is to try new things and realize yourself," she said.

In an interview before the ceremony, ELHS Principal Ethan Hildreth spoke of both the students' past and future.

"We regret seeing them go, but at the same time we're thrilled for them," he said. "We wouldn't have it any other way. We're glad to see them move on to new challenges and more opportunities."

And speaking of opportunities, senior Brandon Cunningham's stepmother, Lorie, already foresees a big one for him. Waiting for the ceremony to begin with her husband, Robert, Lorie spoke of her aspirations for Brandon, who plans to attend Clayton College & State University – but who also plays golf.

"We're waiting for him to get on the PGA Tour and then take care of us in our old age," she said.