Morrow High School graduate, Alonso Pierre, stood in a dimly-lit tunnel underneath the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, moments after the school's graduation ceremony Friday afternoon. He stared at his diploma.
As Pierre marveled at the certificate, which represented more than 12 years of studying, tests and homework, many of his 323 fellow graduates rushed by to find their families and friends.
A large, gold seal was in the lower, right-hand corner of Pierre's diploma, and on the diplomas of 2,200 other Clayton graduates. It was the mark of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), which said: "ACCREDITED HIGH SCHOOL."
After a year of uncertainty over whether Clayton County Public Schools' Class of 2009 would graduate from an accredited school system, Pierre simply admired his diploma. "Look at it," he said aloud. "It sure looks beautiful, doesn't it?"
Members of the Class of 2009 spent their senior year watching their school system's accreditation status go back-and-forth, like a ping-pong ball, but they ultimately graduated from an accredited school district.
When the school year began last August, members of the class, along with many other people in the school system and the community, were waiting to hear whether SACS would revoke the district's accreditation.
Less than a month into the school year, the agency announced that Clayton County had become the first U.S. school system to lose its regional accreditation in nearly 40 years. SACS officials said that the district met only one of out nine mandates for improvement issued earlier in 2008. Part of the problem, agency officials said, was a "dysfunctional" school board.
At the beginning of this month, however, SACS officials announced that enough progress had been made by the district and an entirely new school board, to warrant re-accreditation - effective immediately.
Vanessa Wright, whose daughter, Brittany, was one of Morrow High School's graduates, said the re-accreditation announcement was like an early graduation present. "I felt they had worked hard, and that hard work finally paid off," she said.
Carolyn Broughton, mother of Morrow graduate, Terrence Richardson, said she was "happy, not only for my son, but for all children" when SACS restored the school system's accreditation. "These children still have a chance, so this is definitely an extra special day," Broughton said.
As Morrow High School's soon-to-be graduates prepared to line up before their graduation ceremony, class Valedictorian Khoa Nguyen said he was a cornucopia of emotions concerning the prospect of receiving a diploma from an accredited school system, after the last 12 months of turmoil.
"I don't know how I feel," said Nguyen, who will attend the Savannah College of Art and Design in the fall. "I have too many emotions clashing right now."
Class Salutatorian Meaghan Jackson, who will attend Clark-Atlanta University, then piped up and said she was glad to know she would receive a diploma that carried a SACS seal.
Jackson was one of several students who formed the school's Concerned Class of 2009 group during her junior year, when it first appeared that the accreditation was in jeopardy. She said she initially felt unsure about the school system's chances of re-gaining accreditation, but she did not want to leave her friends and classmates.
Jackson said she eventually put her faith in the possibility that the school system would regain its accreditation, and prayed for it to happen. "I know I feel relieved that we got our accreditation back, and right on time, too," she said. "After we lost it, I felt a little hopeless, but you keep on going and praying, and then, we got it back. It makes today mean so much more, because we were the underdogs."
Brittany Wright said she could not restrain her emotions when she got a text message during her second-period class on May 1, and found out the accreditation had been restored. "I jumped up in the air ... Everybody did," said Wright, who is still weighing her options about which college she will attend in the fall.
As the time for Morrow's graduation ceremony approached, several graduates said they were filled with anxiety about the prospect of not just graduating from an accredited school system, but moving into a world where they will not attend classes with the same people they have learned with for more than a decade.
"I woke up at 7 a.m., today because I couldn't sleep," said graduate Khue Tran. "It's like everything is over now."
When Morrow Principal Patricia Hill asked every graduate who planned to attend a four-year college in the fall to stand, every student stood up. Hill said she was proud of the way her school's graduates had "overcame a lot of adversity with the accreditation issue."
"It's been a long year for them, having to hear about it constantly on the news," Hill said. "I think these young people were dedicated to Clayton County, and their school. Most of the tone this year was set by the accreditation issue, and that [staying in the county] was a real testament to them - to be able to overcome that adversity and be successful academically."
Clayton Schools Superintendent Valya Lee said she was at a loss for words to describe how happy she was that the seniors got to graduate from an accredited school system. "I don't think words can describe how I feel about this," Lee said. "It's beyond rewarding to see the excitement these kids have to graduate from an accredited school system ... It speaks to their faith, and belief in this school system. I always say 'with God, all things are possible,' and these young people believed in the possible."
During his farewell address to the class, graduate Jeremy Satterwhite reflected on the challenges faced by the Class of 2009 by talking about some of the hopelessness he and his classmates felt last August, when the accreditation loss was announced.
"We have been through many tests and trials," Satterwhite said. "We began to wonder what would become of our future. It was hard to find hope in our situation. But look at us now. We have beaten the odds, and I am proud to say that we have regained our accreditation."
There was thunderous applause.