Graduation shows personal touch of counselors, teachers

Lyman High School's 458 graduates sat in alphabetical rows, tassels on their blue caps uniformly hanging to the right, eyes focused forward on the stage they were about to cross.

In the moments before officially finishing high school, the seniors appeared as orderly as the boxes that held diplomas backstage.

What you don't see on graduation day is the disorder leading up to the ceremony — the thousands of pages of transcripts that must be pored over, the chaos that ensues when a student ends up a credit short, the panicked phone calls from parents who already ordered a graduation cake.

"It's kind of like that duck in the middle of the lake that looks so calm, but underneath he's paddling like heck," said Lyman Assistant Principal Regina Klaers, who oversees graduation.

There's a frenetic five days, including the weekend, from the time teachers turn in final grades until diplomas are finalized.

It's go time for counselors like Michele Reed.

"I had 1,300 pages of transcripts to review on Friday," she said. "I just kept going. I didn't want to stop."

On Monday, after the review, about 40 students were in jeopardy of not graduating.

Seminole County changed its policy a few years ago so that students who are even one credit shy couldn't participate in the ceremony with their class. They must finish summer school first. Orange County has a similar policy.

That makes the work by counselors like Reed even more critical. They frantically call students, parents and teachers to resolve paperwork goofs.

And then there are the tougher cases. A student was missing a math credit, but he knew the material so he was able to make it up with an online course in just two days. It's rare, but it happens.

Or students who cram overnight because they signed up for an online class through Florida Virtual School and still had an assignment or two to complete.

By the time Lyman's graduation came on Wednesday, only 16 of the 40 questionable students at the beginning of the week didn't make it to the ceremony.

"All the stress is totally worth it today when you see them on stage with the smiles on their faces," Reed said.

It's popular to criticize public schools for having too many standardized tests that lead to an impersonal and bureaucratic education. But the attention counselors and teachers give some of these students shows that the personal touch is very much alive in public schools.

Counselor Mary Adessa worked with one student who at the beginning of the year looked far more likely to end up in summer school than walking to "Pomp and Circumstance" with his class. New to Lyman, he was so far behind he technically wasn't even a senior.

But he was determined. And didn't take the easy way out. He dove into AP classes, enrolled in extra online courses and put on a cap and gown this week.

"Some kids don't know what they're capable of and when they're given that push and that encouragement they just blossom," Adessa said.

David Campbell sees it too. He teaches a class called Operation Diploma, which allows students who are behind to catch up. Some are there because they had health problems or another personal crisis.

Others simply don't like school. Campbell can relate to those students. He didn't care much for school himself.

"When I go to my high-school reunions nobody can believe I'm a high-school teacher," he said.

Thanks to counselors and teachers like Campbell, a student who walks across the stage this graduation season might one day say the very same thing.

bkassab@tribune.com

CHICAGO

More