PALMETTO -- A diploma is a diploma.
It doesn't matter if you earned it from a traditional high school or from an alternative program. All that matters is you earned a diploma, completing all the same requirements and stipulations as every other student.
That's the message 18-year-old Shannon Stitzer passed along to her fellow graduates Wednesday night at the Horizons Academy and the related Learning is For Everyone program graduation ceremony.
"There was a point in my LIFE I thought I would never graduate," said Stitzer, who hasn't attended a traditional school since middle school and found her home at Horizons in the last two years. Stitzer was one of two students to speak before the gathered faculty, administrators, staff and guests at Palmetto High School.
After graduation, Stitzer will continue culinary classes at Manatee Technical Institute and should finish up
there next year, she said.
Thirty-one students crossed the stage during the hour-long ceremony honoring alternative and online program students. The class is made up of more than 100 students, but many chose to attend graduations at their local schools instead.
Students at Horizons Academy and the extension LIFE program, which focuses on class credit recovery, have all experienced hardships that made it difficult for them to continue classes in a traditional school, said Principal Omar Edwards. Now these students have proven they can earn a high school diploma, this is only the beginning, he said.
"If they can have a high school diploma, they can have a college degree or a technical skill," Edwards said.
Jazmine Cerda, a LIFE student and the second student speaker Wednesday, is looking to become a teacher. She'll attend State College of Florida next year.
Cerda, 20, reminded her peers to be proud of their accomplishments since earning the diploma requires dedication, especially with online courses.
"It's not as easy as people make it seem," Cerda said.
The intimate ceremony featured a special musical performance from local singer Michelle Crockett, who serenaded the graduates with a rendition of "Never Give Up" by Yolanda Adams.
Jason Poe, an English teacher who has had more than half the graduating seniors in his classes, shared three phrases with graduates he said he never told them enough while they were in school.
"I'm sorry," he told graduates, for not having all the answers to every question and for any times he may have disappointed students.
"Yes you can," he said asking graduates to remember their first days in his class when they didn't want to be there and weren't sure if they could graduate.
His final message to students: You're worth it.
"Many of my students don't believe that," Jones told the crowd.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.