The graduates couldn’t have been prouder. One by one, they walked on stage to shake hands with a receiving line of teachers, picked up their high school diplomas, and in keeping with tradition, tossed their mortarboards in the air to cheers from the audience.
Family, friends and spouses crowded into the small theater, bringing with them squirming children, flowers, candy necklaces and balloons to honor their own graduate— graduates like Adriana Diaz-Cid who has waited almost twenty years to finish high school
“I come when my little kids, they were three years old when they came here the first time. Right now they are 21 years old. I feel really happy, really excited. Yeah, it’s my time now. “
She is not atypical. Estimates are that about 9 percent of adults over the age of 25 in Alaska do not have a high school diploma.
” They are the forgotten people. That’s what keeps us involved in it. If we don’t serve, they are lost “
Dr. Elizabeth Kane sits behind her desk in a crowded office at the Adult Learning Center in Anchorage. Today she’s handling the phones, because the secretary is out.
Kane says most of the school’s students are US born.
“…and they just had to leave school for one reason or another. Mostly because of tragedy in the family. I find that a lot of it is, the mother died. We have many people, like the mother died, and she was the only single parent. Or maybe they just had to help out.. the father died, and they had to help out. “
Some of the dropouts never get back to school. And years, or decades go by. The school has one mission.. to help adults get high school diplomas.
“We are the only high school that someone of any age can come back and finish up. We are globally , too. “
The Anchorage School District cannot graduate anyone over age 21. Many of the Center’s students are immigrants who have learned English as a second language but still need a US high school diploma to get work here, despite having achieved higher education in their home countries. The school has students from nine different African nations, Viet Nam, the Phillipines, Mexico and Central American countries.
Kane has taught in many economically disadvantaged areas of the globe : Jamaica for one, and in Mississippi and in rural Alaska in Norvik and Kotzebue. Her Irish accent belies her country of origin:
“My family is come from a long line of teachers. I think we were brought up with the idea that education was probably the most important liberating factor for any group of people. And I felt like if people are educated and well educated, they are free. And I think that to give people freedom is to give them a good education. “
She is continuing that tradition in Anchorage.
The Center is located in a crowded mini mall in mid town. Because the students in general are adult working people, they can choose their own time to study in the school. Courses are geared to independent study at home as well. And the Center survives on the tuition they pay, which is not very much.
“We make a payment plan and students try to give us twenty dollars a week, or one hundred dollars a month if they can afford it. And it’s a struggle for many students, it’s a big struggle for people especially when they have several children, and they are trying to keep their shelter and keep their food on the table. And we understand that. And we try to help people. Because definitely they are on a very low income, or no income. “
Kane says she gets no financial aid from either the city or the state, but some help comes from a surprising source.
“We do get help from the Mexican government for the Mexican students or students of Mexican descent. “
The Adult Learning Center used to be part of UAA, but the university cut it loose in 2004. Kane says the staff chose to keep the school going on their own, and formed a non profit. Despite it’s financial struggles, the school has graduated about 1400 students in its nine years. And that benefits the entire community.
“Every person who gets educated is supporting the whole community. Because they are now paying taxes, they are off welfare. They are giving a great asset to the community.”
And for many of the forgotten people, that has been a blessing.
“It was great, you know. Here I finally got the monkey off my back, finally. I’ve been waiting for a long time..”
Victor Senethep, in his graduation robes, posed with his pals as iphone shutters snap for one more photo before the start of the graduation after – party.