35 graduates of Helena’s high school graduation program | Education

Mikayla McLaughlin’s mother says she doesn’t know if her daughter will ever graduate from high school.

“I didn’t think this would happen for a long time,” Danielle Veilleux said Friday in the school auditorium, minutes after Mikayla received her diploma.

A scene from the Access to Success graduation ceremony at Helena Middle School on Friday.

THOM BRIDGE, Independent Disc

“She’s done so much to turn around, it’s awesome,” Veilleux said.

Not only had Mikayla graduated, but the 19-year-old did so with enthusiasm as she was awarded the David Strong Memorial Scholarship, which will give her two years of tuition-free postgraduate study at Helena College.

“I was really surprised,” said Mikayla, whose name is Kayla, adding that she didn’t think she could go to college. She said she would probably study commerce.

“I’m really excited,” she said.

Mikayla was among 35 students who graduated from high school on Friday through Helena Public Schools’ “Access to Success” program. Since 2009, the high school graduation program has improved options for those who are severely at risk or have dropped out of high school, officials said.

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Access to successful graduation 2022

A scene from the Access to Success graduation ceremony at Helena Middle School on Friday.

THOM BRIDGE, Independent Disc

Classes are held in an adult learning environment and the program is hosted on the campus of Helena College. Eligibility is limited to those who are at least 16 years old, meet minimum reading levels, are not enrolled in school, and do not have a high school diploma.

Over 500 students have graduated from high school through the program.

Friday’s ceremony took place in the auditorium of Helena Middle School. Dozens of proud family members and friends cheered and cheered as the students received their diplomas. Seventeen of the 35 graduates attended the ceremony.

Deputy Superintendent of Helena Public Schools, Josh McKay, called for graduations to be handed out at a slow pace, to let each graduate and their families bask in the moment. Among those present were several teachers, some members of the school district‘s board of trustees, and Rex Weltz, superintendent.

“I’m really proud of these students,” McKay said, adding that the program empowers students to move forward to do what they need to do next.

“I’m really excited about it,” he said.

The Strong scholarship is named after a Helena school administrator who died with his son in a car accident in eastern Montana. He was the founder of the program. The scholarship is a two-year tuition waiver to attend Helena College, and McKay said it allows Strong to continue making a difference in students’ lives.

In a speech to students that turned emotional at times, McKay urged them to take those risks in life to improve the world. And to meet challenges and make a difference at this precise moment.

Friends and family shared hugs and made plans for where to go for a celebratory meal.

Access to successful graduation 2022

Tonee West-Smiraldo receives her diploma Friday at the Access to Success graduation ceremony at Helena Middle School.

THOM BRIDGE, Independent Disc

Tonee West-Smiraldo, 18, was among the attendees at the hugfest.

“I’m so excited to have graduated,” she said. “It was very difficult, but I had great teachers.”

Her grandmother, also named Tonee West, flew in from Las Vegas for the ceremony.

“It was a rough road for her,” Grandma said, nodding towards the stage. “I think it’s beautiful. These kids went there and fought for it.

Associate Editor Phil Drake can be reached at 406-231-9021.

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