The futures of 370 high school dropouts got a big boost and education-choice proponents argued their case during a graduation ceremony Monday for a grassroots Camden alternative school.
Held at the Susquehanna Bank Center, the commencement was the largest in the three-year history of the Community Education Resource Network (CERN), according to cofounder and political activist Angel Cordero.
Last winter, the second-chance program, staffed largely by volunteers, was in danger of closing. Its host, Bethel United Methodist Church, could no longer afford to pay the school's utility bills. An Inquirer article about its possible closing resulted in school-sparing donations, including a generous one from Campbell Soup Co., Cordero said.
Even before that, however, CERN won the attention of Gov. Christie, who favors education options and criticizes failing public schools. He visited CERN twice while on the campaign trail.
CERN graduates receive home-school diplomas, which are not endorsed by the state but allow students to enter trade schools and some community college programs.
At Monday's ceremony, the school won the endorsement of numerous state and local leaders, including Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, the keynote speaker.
Congratulating the graduates, Schundler said the state needs more alternatives like CERN.
"I'm a believer in the Malcolm X school of education - by any means necessary," Schundler said, addressing the maroon- and yellow-gowned students, their friends, and family.
At least three speakers including Cordero, Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D., Camden), and Bob Bowdon, whose documentary The Cartel views New Jersey education with a critical eye, used some of their podium time to endorse the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act. If passed, the bill, favored by Christie, would help students in failing schools attend private or out-of-district schools. Money would be raised via corporate tax credits.
But the real stars of the days were the graduates, many of whom had children or even grandchildren in the audience.
Together in line were twin sisters Tiffany and Tiandra Hammond, 24, who both dropped out of Camden high schools because they got pregnant and had to care for their babies.
Both spoke of plans to continue their educations, but the day's next order of business was celebration.
"We're going to have a cookout and eat cake and have a fun time with our family," Tiandra Hammond said.
Cruz Maria Figueroa, 43, of Paterson, and her family were planning to party, too. The former day-care worker and mother of two collected her diploma Monday along with four relatives ranging in age from 19 to 42.
Figueroa, who left high school when her mother moved her from Puerto Rico, said she had her lessons sent to her. She said she knew of no programs like CERN in her area.
"This helps a lot of people," she said.
One of them was Michael Stauffer, 24, a truck driver who plans to either train as a diesel mechanic or become a Camden firefighter.
Stauffer left Woodrow Wilson High School five months short of graduation, he said, despite a college seat waiting for him in North Carolina.
"I had a full scholarship and everything," he said. "I had a kid, and I dropped out of school to take care of my son."
His baby's mother "couldn't handle" parenthood, he said. "She was getting ready to graduate herself."
His son is now 7 and attends Cramer Elementary School in Camden. Stauffer, just a couple of hours from claiming his diploma, looked ready to breathe a sigh of relief.
"It's another weight off my shoulders," he said.