Doug Daniels has been a social studies teacher at Douglass High School for more than 20 years, but he’s still taken aback by the sense of accomplishment he sees in some of his graduating students.
“When I graduated high school, it wasn’t that special a moment — my parents and friends just expected me to,” Daniels said. “But when I hear some of these kids say, ‘I’m the first one in my family to graduate high school,’ I’m just like, ‘wow.’”
A record 56 students graduated from Douglass on Friday evening in a ceremony held at Columbia College. Douglass is the city’s alternative public high school, with enrollment this year hovering at 200. Daniels likens it to a small town, versus the big towns of Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools.
Before students can enroll at Douglass, they and their parents or guardians have to meet with the principal, Brian Gaub. He calls these two-way-street exchanges of information, with the goal of making everybody’s expectations clear. His is a bookend role: The man who welcomes the students also sees them off with a handshake on the stage in Launer Auditorium.
“It’s a great thing to see,” Gaub said. “You can feel the excitement in the community.”
At Friday’s commencement, graduation speaker Rebecca Crowley urged her fellow students to be proud of their achievements.
“We all view Douglass as our second chance,” Crowley said. “All those obstacles have helped us get to where we are today.”
Graduation isn’t a certainty for all Douglass students. Jill Barr, the school’s administrative assistant and a linchpin in its day-to-day operations, said that a number of Douglass students stop attending classes in the middle of the school year. But, she said, “Students are encouraged to come back and finish. Most of them do.”
Students typically come to Douglass in the first place because they did not perform well within traditional classroom settings. The thinking behind the school is that the smaller class sizes and intimate academic setting, as well as the personal advising and more specialized areas of study, are necessary to reach some students.
Graduation, Gaub said, reflects the success of these teaching approaches and instills in the staff and teachers a sense of pride and confidence in their efforts to prepare Columbia’s youths for their next steps.
Teachers at Douglass also serve as advisors for their students. In his role as advisor, Daniels acts as the “streamliner of communication with the home.” He talks with parents about student performance, attendance and attitude. He also acts as the parents’ outlet, so they can voice their concerns about how things are going.
Douglass partners with area businesses, and a number of its graduates go on to work full time with those businesses. Others go on to college or some form of continued education. Part of what Barr does is prepare students for life after graduation by helping them write resumes, visit college and technical schools, explore military options and meet with people working in businesses.
“You grow to be a part of their family,” Barr said. “Some of these kids have had to overcome so many obstacles.”
Some lack traditional home support and have to take care of themselves and their siblings; others face the difficulties that come with early parenthood.
Despite the difficult circumstances of some of its graduates, the auditorium was filled with energy. Family, friends and faculty filled the seats of the modestly-sized Launer Auditorium, leaving many well-wishers lining the walls.
Speaking over the den of cameras and anxious whispers, senior Rebecca Crowley thanked the many family members, friends and Douglass faculty members present for their help and guidance over the years. Crowley soberly noted the difficulties that lay ahead for her and her classmates.
Amid thunderous applause and cheers, she concluded, “But if we can get through high school, we can get through anything.”