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Once at risk of dropping out, these Anchorage students are celebrating their diplomas

Faron Schneider, 19, reads a graduation speech she wrote but ultimately decided not to give at her graduation ceremony. S.A.V.E. High School recognized 51 graduates at a ceremony at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Backstage at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, 19-year-old Faron Schneider read her graduation speech out loud moments before the ceremony.

It's a S.A.V.E. High School tradition that each graduating student has a chance to address the audience. It's a final writing assignment, in part, but also a chance to reflect on the strength of kids who had been at risk of dropping out, said Principal Karin Parker. Most took the opportunity to step to the podium.

But Schneider felt the words wouldn't come out and decided against it.

"I didn't want to give it because I'm emotional," she said.

S.A.V.E. is an Anchorage School District alternative high school for students who have fallen significantly behind, due to illness, family complications, attendance issues or various other wrong turns and obstacles. S.A.V.E. — which stands for Specialized Academic Vocational Education — offers them an individual path to graduation, aided by a lot of personal attention in a drama-free social environment, said language arts teacher Holly Adkins. Students also take classes at King Career Center or hold jobs.

"No matter where a student's skill set is when they come into our school, we can work with that," Adkins said.

Bryanna Yatchmenoff, 19, is covered in leis after her graduation. (Marc Lester / ADN)

On Tuesday, students celebrated before an audience who sometimes shouted their names across the concert hall. Fifty-one students were recognized, though some who were working couldn't make it. Dozens chose to speak, to share advice, admit their mistakes or to thank the people who helped them.

John Tauanu'u, 19, said it has been tough to stay confident as a "super senior," a student who needed extra time to reach graduation, while watching his peers finish ahead of him. That made graduation day special, he said.

"All my family is here to support me," Tauanu'u said. "My teachers, they're here to witness me make it."

Unlawance Mireles, 18, said there was a time people assumed she would drop out of high school. That was years ago. Now, diploma in hand, she's considering a career in the military or criminal justice.

"I am a teen mom. I had my daughter when I was 14. Graduating on time is a blessing to me," she said.

"I wanted to prove, not to myself or to my daughter but to other people, that even though life knocks you down, you need to stand back up and you need to keep going."

Unlawance Mireles, 18, reacts after being handed her diploma. (Marc Lester / ADN)

After giving hugs in the lobby after the ceremony, Parker said S.A.V.E graduations are special because they celebrate each student's unique journey.

"I think sometimes, there's a perception that you have to be a bad student to end up at S.A.V.E.," Parker said. "The reality is, every student has a story."

Schneider said she faced a principal who wouldn't let her fall through the cracks when she enrolled earlier this year.

"If you don't show up to school, she will call you," Schneider said of Parker. " 'Where you at? What are you doing? How are you feeling?' "

Khyle Reyes walks toward the stage at the start of the graduation ceremony. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Leslie Harris dances onto the stage when his name is announced. S.A.V.E. High School recognized 51 graduates at a ceremony at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Schneider said she lost two close friends to suicide while in high school elsewhere. After she dropped out, she worked at a restaurant full-time for a year. But at the urging of her mother and with help from staff, she found her way to a diploma. She plans to enroll in nursing school next, she said.

In the speech she never gave, she said she wrote about doing things at a pace that was right for her.

"It was about time, and how subjective time is," she said after the ceremony.

"It's just that you're not wrong for being late."

Jonah Pelanato, wearing many leis near center, is surrounded by supporters after the ceremony. (Marc Lester / ADN)

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