VALDOSTA -- Fifteen students added their names to Valdosta High School's Class of 2005 roster during a special commencement ceremony Sunday.

"It feels good," said a smiling Lekeisha Brown immediately following the event. "This was something I needed to do. It's a good day."

An estimated 200 men, women and children converged on Valdosta High School's Performing Arts Center to catch a glimpse of their loved one accepting his or her diploma. Their pride and excitement was obvious.

Valdosta City School System Superintendent Sam Allen congratulated each graduate for not giving up when the odds were against them. He also encouraged them to continue conquering their fears and make their dreams a reality.

Brown's dream is to attend Georgia Military College and pursue a degree in business. It's one she plans to make a reality in the coming weeks.

"It's OK to dream the impossible even if others think it will never come to fruition," said Gene Godfrey, featured speaker. "Don't be discouraged. Keep hope alive. Use what you have and master it."

Principal Brett Stanton said previously 96 Valdosta High School seniors were unable to participate in the May 20 commencement ceremony for failing to meet the necessary requirements. Some of them failed to pass all of the required course work. More than half, including Brown, failed to pass all sections of the Georgia High School Graduation Test.

Stanton said 24 of those students completed State Board of Education and Valdosta Board of Education requirements during the summer months. Sunday's commencement ceremony was dedicated to celebrating their accomplishments.

"Each of you continued to fight, claw, scratch ... and never gave up," he said. "I know you will move on to do great things."

On May 8, 2000, the Valdosta Board of Education voted to implement tougher commencement ceremony participation criteria, effective with

the 2003-04 school year. Before the policy, students planning to complete their requirements during summer school were allowed to participate in the annual event.

Allen said the board soon learned that many of the students who were allowed to march never returned to complete the work and earn the diploma. In the end, it was determined the old policy was doing more harm than good.

"These students need a high school education," he said recently. "If marching is an incentive, then we are providing it. We want them to know they have to work for it. I think we'll be surprised by the numbers of students who start thinking about the second chance."

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