A quote by William Arthur Ward featured on the Whittier High School commencement program — “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it, if you can dream it, you can become it” — seemed fitting for the 47 students who graduated Friday night at Smith-Cotton Junior High Auditorium.
“Graduation is pretty special for our kids,” said B.J. Curry, assistant director at Whittier. “For a lot of them this may be the first graduation in their family. So it’s pretty special. We think we have a very special program. We have 47 graduates through day and night school and we have a unique rose ceremony at the end, that’s very touching. There’s really not a dry eye in the house, because we let them take a couple roses and give them to the people that are most special in their lives that helped get them through this. Sometimes it’s their family and a lot of times it’s a teacher because our teachers do make that connection with the kids.”
Whittier has been in operation for 17 years and is making a difference in young people’s lives.
“It has grown from a handful of graduates to we usually average somewhere between 40 and 50 the last couple of years,” Curry said. “We think it’s a positive experience and our kids are very appreciative of it and that’s the good thing.”
Students Amber Rhodes and Corey Bryson said graduating meant a lot to them and they both hoped to go on to college.
“It’s a start into adulthood,” Rhodes said. “It’s a chapter closed, it’s a new beginning.”
She said she hopes to attend State Fair Community College to become a dental hygienist.
Bryson said he plans to go to SFCC or to the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg to major in music theory.
Director of Whittier High School Martin White spoke for a few minutes to the class, family and friends.
“We’ve done some pretty neat things this year at Whittier High School,” he said. “And I just want to announce a few of our achievements this year. Last year we did a tremendous job with our student attendance … this year we broke that record. You can’t learn if you aren’t here — thank you staff and thank you students.”
Martin also said EOC testing scores were up, improving “dramatically.”
“They can learn, they’re smart,” he added.
He also cited the staff and students for implementing a project to start a local Autism chapter.
“They worked their tails off and hosted a 5K run this spring,” he said. “This event drew 350 participants and collected over $8,000. Also the same service marketing class volunteered over 100 hours to the Open Door Center…
“On a personal note, I would personally like to congratulate the class of 2014 for their outstanding contributions … I’ve seen a lot of positive, productive student growth of this class and I have no doubt in my mind these students will become productive students in their future endeavors.”
Giving the keynote address was former Whittier student Juanita Hernandez who graduated in 2002. She was introduced by Kim Graves, and Hernandez gave insight into the term “alternative” and told her story about why she attended Whittier High School.
“The main thing I remember about her was her smile,” Graves noted. “She’s just a happy person. She was so appreciative of the opportunity to attend Whittier. She had ambition. At the time when she was a sophomore she was a single mother and she still had the ambitions of becoming an United Nations Interpreter, she was multi-lingual.
“A lot of students find Whittier the right fit for them, but I can tell you this about Juanita she was a good fit for that school. Because she was the right student for our school.”
Hernandez went from an entry position at Katy Trail Community Health Center to working now in Kansas City as a case manager helping cancer patients.
“My freshman year I attended Smith-Cotton High School only for my first semester,” Hernandez said.
She loved French, dreamed about being an interpreter and wanted to major in psychology in college and move to New York, but she had a turn of plans due to family situations.
“My freshman year I got pregnant and had attendance issues,” she added.
She ultimately began attending Whittier.
“You know Whittier is a more flexible school,” she said. “This made me feel shunned and not excepted.”
She cited the idea that alternative schools were for delinquents and for people that can’t handle traditional school. She said her first day at Whittier was uncomfortable because she didn’t know what to expect and she was embarrassed about being pregnant.
“But I was loved by the staff and they didn’t seem to be biased in their caring and I didn’t feel like I was a bad kid,” she said.
Hernandez, who is 12 years older than her siblings, said her mother left them at one point and they were on their own. Through all of this she kept working toward a future eventually moving to Kansas City with her three children and found the job working for a major health care center as a case worker in cancer treatment. Her oldest son is an honor student and her little brother will graduate Saturday at Smith-Cotton.
Hernandez is also working on becoming an inventor and tried once several years ago to get her invention patented.
“I have since found an exceptional company and am in the third stage of the process of which is patenting, and building a prototype and marketing,” she said. “This is the furthest I’ve ever been and the journey is so exciting. Juanita Hernandez, an alternative school graduate and an inventor. Thomas Edison’s teacher wrote a note to his mom one day stating that he was too stupid to learn. Did you know Thomas Edison holds 2,332 patents?”
Hernandez said she was happy to see that Whittier is still doing good things for students. She has plans for a college education and still plans on being an interpreter someday.
“I have goals and I strive to learn something new every day,” she said. “Even though I’ve had some struggles in my teen years I believe I have shown the world that I’m not alternative,” she added. “I believe I have overcame that with flying colors. Don’t ever stop chasing your dreams — I am proud to be a Whittier Tiger.”
After graduating the students were allowed to present roses to the people they felt had influenced them to stay in school. Marion Ivy received a rose from grandson Deante Marshall, bringing tears to her eyes.
“It’s been a long road,” Ivy said. “And for him to be here…”