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September 18, 2014

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Summer graduation celebrates students’ determination and accomplishments

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Steve Marcus

Graduates listen to a keynote address by Las Vegas City Councilman Ricki Barlow during the Clark County School District’s second annual summer high school graduation ceremony for summer school graduates and at-risk students at the Las Vegas Academy in downtown Las Vegas Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013.

CCSD August Graduation

Edgar Villalobos, 19, celebrates with his girlfriend Vanessa Garcia, 18, following the Clark County School District's second annual summer high school graduation ceremony for summer school graduates and at-risk students at the Las Vegas Academy in downtown Las Vegas Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. Garcia, who gave birth to their daughter two months ago, graduated from CCSD's Academy of Individual Studies. Launch slideshow »

Before a crowd of cheering, camera-toting parents, Luis Peña walked across the stage to receive his high school diploma.

Peña, 19, grinned as he shook several school officials' hands and grasped his diploma. His smile belied the fact that Peña – a fifth-year senior with a 2-year-old son – almost didn't make it to graduation.

More than 150 Clark County School District students – including Peña – celebrated their high school graduation today at the Las Vegas Academy campus.

There were the usual commencement traditions – the “Pomp and Circumstance” march, congratulatory speeches from various dignitaries and the turning of the tassels. But this summer graduation was special.

Just a few months ago, all of these students were considered at risk of not finishing high school. They were short one or two credits or hadn't passed a proficiency exam, required by the state to graduate.

The School District, which has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country, wasn't going to give up on these students, Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky said. If students were willing to work through summer school – and even go through a fifth year of high school – the School District would support their efforts, he said.

So the determined students persevered. They went to summer classes, studied while their peers enjoyed their break and sweated through the July proficiency exam.

"We're late-bloomers," Del Sol High School student Mary Ann Tenada said in her commencement address. "But it's never too late to reach and accomplish our goals. We made it."

Like Tenada, Peña made it. But it wasn't an easy hurdle.

During his freshman year, Peña got caught up in the wrong crowd. He ditched classes, experimented with drugs and alcohol and fell behind in school.

"I didn't really care much about anything," Peña said of his first year in high school. "School was the least of my worries."

When he got his girlfriend pregnant, Peña realized he had to grow up. Peña began working two minimum-wage jobs – one at a fast-food chain and another at a shoe store – to support his son, Julian.

"It was hard, waking up every three hours to warm the bottle and working two jobs," Peña said. "It made me grow up extremely fast."

During his sophomore year, Peña dropped out of Spring Valley High School and transferred to Desert Rose Adult High School, a school of second chances. Desert Rose, which is open to students 12 months each year, caters to older students, teenage parents and remedial students.

When he enrolled at Desert Rose, Peña had just four credits – barely the status of a freshman.

"Once they get behind, it's hard to make up credits," said Sandra Ransel, principal at Desert Rose.

Despite all Peña’s efforts, he couldn't graduate with his classmates who stayed at Spring Valley. He took a fifth year and this past summer to make it to graduation.

It was worth the wait, he said.

"I feel so ecstatic," Peña said as his mother looked on, beaming. "I've been thinking about this moment so much."

Now, Peña encourages his younger brother Christopher, a sophomore at Durango High School, to study hard and graduate.

"He has no excuse not to graduate," Peña said, pointing to his 15-year-old brother. "I don't want to hear, 'I can't do it.' You can."

Grads make district proud

  • The Clark County School District had its first summer graduation ceremony last year to honor summer school graduates who almost didn't graduate.
  • The August graduation festivities, which come nearly three months after the regular commencement ceremonies in May and June, celebrate at-risk students' "grit," Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky said.
  • "These students easily could have given in and decided not to get a diploma," Skorkowsky said. "Instead, we showed them that we were not willing to give up on them, and they made us proud. Their futures will be brighter because of their determination."
  • This summer, about 325 students earned their high school diplomas. About 150 of them took part in Wednesday's commencement ceremony.

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