They had missed school, failed classes, were held back, or come up short on credits to graduate with their peers.

But many were embarrassed and reluctant to attend classes with younger students to meet the state high school graduation requirements.

Then they got a second chance and enrolled in an alternative program at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden known as SOAR, or Students on Academic Rise. They attended classes in a special wing of the sprawling school — minimizing any stigma — where counselors gave them daily pep talks and carefully tracked their progress.

The program provides an accelerated schedule, said Kandace Butler, the program’s director: Students could complete a year’s work in a semester.

“Our goal is to show them that you have to work hard if you want to achieve anything in life,” Butler said. “The goal is to make sure they finish successfully.”

» READ MORE: Camden’s Woodrow Wilson High School renamed Eastside High

On Friday, nearly three dozen students who completed the program will be among the 147 Woodrow Wilson students graduating this year. It will be the last class with the name Woodrow Wilson listed on their diplomas as the school has been renamed Eastside High.

”It’s a big moment in my life,” said Jacier Proctor, 19. “I’m proud of myself that I am able to do it. Some of my peers weren’t able to do it.”

The Camden School District, under state takeover since 2013, has struggled to improve its four-year graduation rate. The pandemic disrupted learning in 2020-21, when the rate dropped 11.4 percentage points to 58.5%, the lowest in the region. The state average is 91%.

» READ MORE: COVID crushed us’: Chronic absenteeism plagued N.J. schools during pandemic

Butler, a teacher in Camden for 17 years, said about 200 students have graduated from the program since it began in 2018. The district, which enrolls about 5,200 students, previously used an outside vendor to operate its alternative program.

Students typically enroll in SOAR after falling two to four years behind, she said. It is not uncommon to have an 18-year-old freshman in the program, Butler said.

“Joining this program was the best thing for me,” said MyNezia Thomas, 18, who hopes to study criminal justice at Camden County College in the fall. “I knew it would be a great opportunity for me to catch up.”

Thomas said she fell behind in the seventh grade when she was commuting to school in Paulsboro and transportation problems led to increased absences. She was a full year behind when she joined SOAR her sophomore year. She became an honors student and completed the program in February.

“I knew that I could work hard enough and graduate with my right class. That’s exactly what I did,” she said.

The reasons that students fall behind academically vary, including difficult home situations, personal challenges, and life-changing events, Butler said. Some moved to other districts where they were held back and returned to Camden behind, she said.

After moving around with his family and enduring “a lot of craziness,” Anthony Warren failed the fifth and ninth grades. The aspiring singer didn’t care too much about school, until he joined the SOAR program in 2019, he says.

“I was going to finish, but I was going to finish really late and that would have been really embarrassing,” Warren, 19, said. “I didn’t want be 21 graduating from school.”

Warren was named outstanding student Wednesday by the music department and received an award that includes free studio recording time. He was selected to sing the national anthem at graduation.

”I’m going to be so proud. I just can’t wait.”

The students credit the program’s structure and tough discipline for their success. They eat lunch together family-style and have team-building activities. No cell phones are allowed and unexcused absences aren’t tolerated. While their academic classes are separate, they have gym in the main school building with other Wilson students. They are also allowed to participate in extracurricular programs and athletics.

Proctor and his identical twin brother, James, said they were held back a grade because of chronic absenteeism when their family briefly moved away. They moved back to Camden their sophomore year.

The brothers improved academically and were able to maintain their grades in order to play on the school’s varsity basketball team. The team won the state championship in March, its first title since 1985. James Proctor scored the go-ahead basket that sealed the victory.

“I’m still in awe about that,” he said. “We made history.”

Proctor, who is considering attending trade school or college to become a physical education teacher, said he was determined to get a high school diploma after he was kept back in the ninth grade after missing about 80 days. He had difficulty coping after a friend was killed.

“A lot of my friends dropped out. Just for me to graduate is going to be a great feeling knowing that I made it,” he said.

Butler said the SOAR students must meet the same state graduation requirements as other students by completing at least 120 credits in 10 subjects that include language arts, math, science, social studies, and health and physical education.

About half of the SOAR students plan to attend college, according to Butler. The remainder are considering attending a trade school or seeking jobs, she said.

Butler watched with pride as her students joined their other Wilson High classmates at graduation practice Wednesday morning. She clapped and cheered as each name was called.

”This is the moment they waited for,” she said.