Graduations at Mountain View School are always special and filled with emotion — even moreso than at other high schools. That's because it's a school of second chances where students written off by others find people who are supportive and encouraging.
LAST WEEK'S graduation, held at Fairfax High, was no exception. Taking the podium, Principal Jim Oliver told the students how "honored and privileged" he felt to be "the principal of this fine institution."
"All of you were placed here for various reasons," he said. "Many of you were told you'd never be successful in life or in school. And some of you were scared when you came here and had an unfair perception that Mountain View was a place where only bad kids go. Well, I don't see any bad kids here today. And now you have the opportunity to show those nonbelievers that they were wrong in their judgment of you."
Some 95 students graduated last Thursday, June 23; and, added to the 59 who received their diplomas in February, that makes 154 in the Class of 2005 — the school's largest graduating class ever.
"Our first graduating class, June 12, 1996, had just 25 students," said Sharon DeBragga, the school's career development coordinator. "So we've come a long way, baby!" As for Thursday's graduates, she said, "It's an enthusiastic class; they're ready to take on the world."
But first, they had to get ready for the ceremony. An hour before their graduation began, students gathered in the cafeteria, sitting at tables in the order in which their names would be called. They chatted with friends while teachers beamed at them with pride and, from time to time, gave congratulatory hugs.
One female teacher was diligently looking for the girl who'd asked her for a bobby pin. "I found the bobby pin," she said. "Now, I can't find the student." Then when she found the girl and was helping her pin her cap in place, the teacher told her regretfully, "There's only so much we can do with these things. It's not a fashion statement."
BARBARA SIMPSON, 17, of Fairfax, said she was "really excited" the big day had finally come and was "proud of everybody here." She came to Mountain View in November and, she said, "They provided a really good environment for everybody and made it feel like a family. They gave me a better sense of study habits and really focused on the individual person." Now off to Radford University to study sports medicine, she said the school helped her with her application, too.
William McRae, 19, of Trinity Centre in Centreville, spent a year at Mountain View. Coming from Laurel, Md., he liked the school's smaller class sizes and more attention for students. "The entire staff helped me throughout the year," he said. "They taught me how to adjust to life after high school and got me prepared for the real world." McRae will study business management at Virginia Union University in Richmond.
Pat McKee, 19, didn't pass his senior year at Lake Braddock, but did fine at Mountain View. "It's a nice school and I liked the way it was set up," he said. "Everyone was treated more like an adult than a kid, and I learned time management and responsibility." McKee will attend a trade school for auto mechanics.
Afton Dickerson, 18, of Reston, has been at Mountain View since February. "I heard about the school and the relationship the teachers had with the kids and I wanted to come here," she explained. "They really believe in you and that you can accomplish whatever you want to. They give you great motivation." She's now headed to Virginia State University to study computer software engineering.
In his commencement address to the students, Oliver said, "Six students graduating today are over age 21, and one very special student is 27 years old." He told them that, since coming to Mountain View, they've all changed their attitudes toward school and toward themselves and made the necessary adaptations to become successful students.
"Your teachers were patient, nurturing and respectful," he said. "Take that lesson and pass it on to others you encounter in your lives. And remember the 'Yes, You Can' rule: Life is tough, but you learn from your mistakes and move forward."
"You learned that your teachers were willing to help you and, through your efforts, you're graduating today," continued Oliver. Choking up, he said, "You're leaving here as a family member — and part of a family who loves you. You've helped to make Mountain View the finest school in Fairfax County."
THE STUDENTS responded with thunderous applause, as they also did for the four student speakers who told their stories. Manny Magana-Rosas, the 27-year-old graduate, spoke first. "When I came here from El Salvador, they told me I was too old for school," he said. "But they sent me to Mountain View."
However, his beloved grandmother died a few days after school started and, grief-stricken, he left and moved away. He later returned, but dropped out again to go to work. Finally, in 2003, he returned to Mountain View for good.
"It was very hard to come into a class with kids half my age," said Magana-Rosas. "I was 25 and ashamed of it. But I was gonna prove to everyone I could do it." His aunt gave him a home and, introducing her to the crowd, he said, "She's my inspiration. And all I can say is, I'm 27 — almost 28 — and I did it." Planning a career in pediatric nursing, he said it feels great to graduate, and he happily discovered "it's never too late to learn."
Next came Tiffany Region of Centreville's Sully Station community. She told her classmates, "The one thing we all have to remember is we didn't do it alone." But when she first came to the school, she said, "I was 15, pregnant and alone." Then Lisa Harbitter, an outside mentor, came to her aid.
"She's my mentor, my friend, my teacher and someone always there for me," said Region. "She's my second mom, and my daughter Halie is Lisa'a first granddaughter. And it's nice to know that, 10 years from now, she'll still care about me."
"I never expected to have a daughter at age 15," continued Region. "But Lisa has shown me that Halie is the best reason to keep fighting for my dreams and my motivation for having them. I'm now 16 and Halie is 1, and my mentor has changed my life."
Prince Essel-Mensah said hard work was responsible for his being able to graduate. "Education is the key to success," he said. "Graduation is the beginning of a new life where your aspirations can be put to the test."
AT MOUNTAIN VIEW, he achieved a 3.7 GPA, made the honor roll and won several awards. "I gained the experience of working hand-in-hand with a very diverse group, and I couldn't have done it without all the words of encouragement from the students, teachers, principal and staff," he said. "I will always cherish the memories I have of this prestigious school."
Little Rocky Run's Grace Aguilera said Mountain View helped her in ways she couldn't have imagined. And when she became overcome with emotion during her speech, pausing as tears spilled from her eyes, a girl from the audience cried out, "Grace, you can do it!"
Once a troublemaker who eventually got kicked out of school, Aguilera is now college-bound to become a nurse. She came to Mountain View and "saw that students were treated with the same respect as teachers. There weren't any cliques and, here, you could be an individual. At Mountain View, I realized school was my priority. And if it hadn't been for my mother, I wouldn't be where I am today."
Aguilera received a Citizenship Award, along with James Freeze and Lacy Meyer. Personal Achievement Awards went to Megan Borkowski, Roxana Cuevas Chacon, Lourdes Flores, Jose Gomez, Sarah Pace and Virakchit Pin. And receiving Faculty Awards were Prince Essel-Mensah and Tyrone Davis.
Afterward, Principal Oliver was like a proud father happy that his children turned out so well. "It's a very special place," he said. "And at graduation, you can truly feel the love of the Mountain View family. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. To see these kids that at one time had to struggle, blossom and graduate, is a really wonderful feat."