The graduates donned their royal blue hats and gowns. Families and friends packed into the decorated gymnasium. Music played, tassels swayed and the audience alternated between cheers and tears.
What looked like a typical graduation ceremony was much more to the 20 Kenai Alternative High School students who took the final steps to completing their educations Friday night.
"It's probably one of the most important things I'll do in my life, after having a baby," said 18-year-old Cheryl Fite prior to the ceremony.
Like many of her peers, Cheryl has juggled more than sports and extracurricular activities with her academics.
She has held down a job, endured a pregnancy and spent the last eight months raising a child, all while working to earn her high school diploma.
It's been hard, but Cheryl wasn't about to give up.
"I just really wanted to graduate. It was important to me," she said.
"It's a lot of work taking care of a baby," she said. "It's hard to get your work done when they want all your attention. It's often a battle between them and the teacher."
Kenai Alternative made the challenge easier, Cheryl said.
The flexible schedule and understanding staff, not to mention the parenting program, provided her an opportunity to finish her education when it might have been easier to give up.
Cheryl's story is not unique at Kenai Alternative. The school serves a group of students with a variety of needs. Many are teen parents. Others battle family problems, and yet others simply weren't succeeding in the traditional high school setting.
"Coming here was my second chance," said Jennifer Millecam, as graduates took turns speaking in lieu of a commencement address. "It's the best choice I've ever made."
"Four years ago, I never thought I'd be graduating," said Tyra Trux. "I want to thank my adopted parents. They were the biggest inspiration in my life. They gave me the knowledge and everything I needed to succeed. They were the parents I never had as a child."
"I know I've disappointed a lot of people," added Destiny Thomp-son. "Hopefully, from here I will get my life straight."
There were few dry eyes as students recalled those who supported them through the rocky path of their high school years, but there was plenty of time for laughter, as well.
Staff members handed out personalized awards to the graduates, offering an opportunity for students to take themselves a little less seriously.
Awards acknowledged everything from leadership (Cheryl received the "No Whining Award" for her motivational advice to her peers) to perpetual tardiness (Chris Stroh received the "Rise and Shine Award" for his list of alarm clock-related excuses).
There also was time for appreciation.
"It's been a long, winding road to get to this point," Principal Greg Wilbanks told the graduates and audience members, thanking the staff members and families who helped the students along the way. Students also spent much time lauding the many people who helped them along the way.
And as the students received their diplomas, they also were handed a yellow rose, which they were told to give to a person who had made their graduation possible.
Roses went to teachers, parents, friends -- and one student, Cara Steadman, gave her rose to her son Trenton.
"I want to thank my family ... and my son, for boosting my ego back up."
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