05/27/11 — A graduation of firsts

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A graduation of firsts

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 27, 2011 1:46 PM

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Graduate Leigh Johnson hugs her friend Madeline Smith after graduating from Wayne Early Middle College High School.

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Tammy Duckworth, assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, addresses the graduating class of Wayne Early Middle College High School.

How many high school graduation ceremonies hand out diplomas and associate degrees and have a speaker chosen by the president of the United States?

Wayne Early/Middle College High School celebrated that distinction Thursday night, along with another milestone -- it was the first graduating class of students who started out together at the school four years ago.

Sixteen received high school diplomas, 18 earned both a diploma from WEMCH and associate degrees from Wayne Community College, and one, Hei Yin Tsui, took home a high school diploma and two associate degrees.

And then there were the 20 fifth-year students, who began the journey in 2007 with their classmates but chose to take an additional year to complete their studies.

Ashley Anderson and Sarah Rhodes said they will return in the fall to finish their associate degrees. Eventual aspirations are social work for Ashley, nursing for Sarah.

"It's been a great experience," Ashley said of her high school/college opportunity.

"I'm nervous and excited," Sarah added before hurrying to homeroom to line up for the ceremony.

Witnessing the first four-year class to graduate was also meaningful to junior Alexis Moore, a marshal at the graduation.

"It inspires me to finish," she said. "I'm just really excited to see them go off to college, although they'll be missed."

Alexis is working toward an associate degree, too, and considering two colleges to pursue her studies to become a psychologist.

Evelyn Edwards, now retired, was happy to be invited to the ceremony.

"I was on staff the second and third year (of the school)," the former English teacher said. "It was one of the best teaching experiences I have ever had. I had to come back and see them."

Lee Johnson has been principal since the school opened on the Wayne Community College campus in the fall of 2006.

"Mama J," as some students called her, and her "guinea pig babies," as she called them, navigated the uncharted waters that are part of establishing a new school. Carving out an identity for the school, Mrs. Johnson said she had "heard it all."

"We've been called the alternative school, the nerd school, the disengaged school, and we have even been referred to as Disneyland," she said. "We have learned many lessons, overcome many obstacles and exceeded our expectations and dreams. ... We chose a motto -- 'Success: The Only Option' -- and we stuck to it."

One of their most impressive goals this year, she noted, was entering the president's Race to the Top Challenge, recognizing schools successfully preparing students for college and careers. WEMCH was chosen one of the top six in the nation, then the top three. And while they lost out to having President Obama as commencement speaker, they got an impressive replacement.

Tammy Duckworth, assistant secretary, office of public and intergovernmental affairs, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, is also a decorated war hero. She was a major in the Illinois Army National Guard and a Black Hawk helicopter pilot serving in Iraq when the aircraft she was co-piloting was ambushed and struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. She lost both of her legs and partial use of one arm, but continues her service in the National Guard and went on to complete the Chicago Marathon.

"Just as it's an incredible privilege for you to be in the top six in the country, it was really a privilege to me to be one of the top officials to get the call from the White House" to speak at the graduation, she told the audience. "I had an opportunity to learn a little about the school and its curriculum. It's no wonder you're a finalist in the president's challenge."

She recognized veterans and military personnel in the audience and praised their service. But she also reminded students that they don't have to wear a uniform to serve.

Ms. Duckworth encouraged the graduates to use their gifts to make the world a better place, remembering that every person, "every single member of your team," is important.

"In my helicopter crew, I was the highest ranking person, the person with the most education, the highest salary and the most information on the mission," she said. "At the end of that day, the most important person was the young door gunner, the lowest ranking person with the least amount of time on the mission."

The moment that rocket-propelled grenade struck the aircraft, injuring everyone on board, she explained, Kirk Hanneman became the most important person on that crew.

"He stood his ground and he did his job," she said, adding, "When you share a mission, it does not matter what your status is ... everybody on your team is important."

Student speakers also shared memories of their time at the school.

Elizabeth Rowe, a fifth-year student, paid tribute to several teachers and staff members, including Tanissa Eatmon, distance learning facilitator, "for making us take our online classes seriously," Kelli Hamm "for her help in math," Dr. John Stiles, college liaison, who is retiring, "for all the college advice" and guidance counselor Kerry Loury, "for making high school absolutely amazing."

Madison Poole, who received a high school diploma and an associate degree, said she still has "vivid" memories of her very first day at the school.

"I remember Anna Rose leaning over and giving me a piece of gum," she said. "Am I really here? Am I really turning over my high school experience to come to this school?

"Then I remembered the reason I wanted to come to the school -- gum. I could chew gum whenever I wanted to.'

That list of reasons grew, she said, as classmates and staff went on to become a "close-knit family."