As graduations go, traditional caps and gowns and all the pomp and circumstance were of very little concern at Monday’s ceremony for Ridgefield’s Alternative High School.
And with nine graduates accepting their diplomas and heading to their top-choice colleges in the fall, not one would have had it any differently.
The Alternative High School offers a unique educational experience for students who felt the larger Ridgefield High School wasn’t for them for any number of reasons, some of which the students described in their individual addresses during the ceremony.
Choosing their own music, making their own speeches and bringing an individuality to the ceremony was symbolic of the path these students have chosen in attending the A-school, director Denise Brown said.
“We’re kind of like a family – we all support each other,” Brown said before the ceremony. “I can’t say enough good things about these kids. The tears will be flowing.”
The class of nine graduates represents the largest since the school’s inception 16 years ago.
School superintendent Deborah Low commended the students for their “gumption and follow-through to follow your own path.”
“I’ve always maintained that the Alternative High School is a program that contributes so much to our district,” High School Principal Jeffrey Jaslow told the graduates. “I wouldn’t want to imagine ourselves without it, and you are a testament to that.”
Each student had a personal reflection to add about the school, often emotionally, and it was clear that the school, staff and fellow students had been positive influences and powerful figures in each of their lives.
Brown’s premonition of tears proved true.
Diego Alarcon, who is headed to Keene State University in the fall with an interest in journalism and teaching, thanked the school tearfully for “pushing me to my limit.”
Samantha Brundage spoke about the “huge, terrifying high school,” saying “I never thought school could be a safe, comfortable place to be” until she arrived at the A-school, and she will now opt for more of it at Southern Connecticut University to be an education major.
“I stand before you all as the person I never thought I could be,” said Kelsey Hoy, who will go on to Coastal Carolina University to study English. “I didn’t know this would be the place to change my life.”
Grace Kain said Brown was “like a second mother to me” and thanked the teachers for “caring about us all” and “teaching me to believe in myself.” She will head to Western Connecticut University in the fall.
“I was doing poorly in school, but here I found incredible acceptance – I knew this was the place for me,” said Catherine Pollack, who will also head to WestConn. “My motivation increased ten-fold.”
“I love this school and I’m grateful for everything it’s given me,” Pollack added.
Jonathan Pryzby, who will be attending Lincoln Tech, said, “Never had I been so comfortable and been so inspired to put real love and effort into my work.”
“The A-school helped make me a happier and better person,” Pryzby said.
“It made me feel like a new member of a family,” Alexa Sanchez said of the school. “It put a smile on my face and confidence in my heart.”
“This school is like my second home,” said Sanchez, who will attend Norwalk Community College. “I wouldn’t have gone to college and would have dropped out long ago.”
Peter Schonning, who won the school’s humanitarian award, said, “If all high schools were like this one, this world would be a better place.”
“We students had our rough patches, but when it came down to it, we hold a respect for each other as fellow A-schoolers,” said Schonning, who will attend the University of Vermont for culinary school.
Paige Tarzia said it took her only four days at the school to realize it was the place for her.
“I’ve made friends at this school I’ll never forget,” Tarzia said. “To my fellow students: We’re all going to college and on to success. I love you.”
Former director Joan Voss, who retired last year, came back with words of encouragement for the students she taught for three years.
“You are always held to think about the future, which is important, but it can be so overwhelming,” Voss told the students (and the audience). “It is so easy to be overwhelmed by the totality of life, but it’s important to take each mistake and learn from it.”
She said afterwards that she was most proud to see the students have choices: “To be in the world at 18 years old with no choices is a terrible place to be, and to allow the students those choices is our goal.”
Brown commended all nine graduates for their courage to choose a different path and to rise above the “shop talk” and prejudices about the A-school – she had personal bits to say about each student.
“This is a courageous bunch,” Brown said. “They have decided to make. It. Happen.”