For David Bycoffe, president of the John Archer School Parent-Teacher Association, and other parents of the students with disabilities who the school serves, the annual commencement is a "bittersweet" time.
Bycoffe, who spoke during the Bel Air school's 44th annual commencement for five 2016 graduates Friday, praised the support John Archer provides for children ages 3 to 21, but he noted that support ends when the students become adults and age out of the program.
"We are a community, and we're all going to face that together one day," he said.
Bycoffe noted his outlook changed recently as he and his son were shopping at the Home Depot store south of Bel Air.
He recalled meeting in the store a young man who graduated from John Archer a few years ago. They chatted briefly as Bycoffe asked him how he was doing.
Bycoffe said he felt relieved as he realized he and the graduate were "having a quiet conversation in the middle of Home Depot, in the middle of Bel Air," and that John Archer graduates can succeed in the adult world.
"I am so excited to see you, as graduates, become part of the Harford County community," he told the Class of 2016.
Five students – Ahmad "Shaib" Abass, Kaitlyn Endlich, Travis Smith, Micheala "Micki" Wilhelm and John Wills – were celebrated for their completion of the John Archer program. All five wore red caps and gowns.
"We've watched them grow, we've watch them mature, we've watched them shine, like a star up in the sky," principal Patricia Walling said.
Randy Geyer, the assistant principal, spoke about each graduate and his or her personality, accomplishments and growth.
Geyer described Abass, who has been at the school since 1998, as "a giant of a young man," but "as gentle as they come."
"He has been around the block in terms of work experience," he said of the various jobs Abass has taken on with outside organizations such as Aberdeen Proving Ground, the Perry Point VA Medical Center and the Harford County Public Library, as well as around the school.
"Needless to say, Shaib is going to leave huge shoes to fill as a graduate," Geyer said.
Endlich has been at John Archer since 1997.
"As soon as Katie enters a classroom, she expects her education to begin promptly," Geyer said.
Endlich, who uses a wheelchair, has improved in terms of her ability to wheel herself around the school building, developed a love of brushing her teeth as part of her personal hygiene regimen and improved her communication and "wait time tolerance" skills, Geyer said.
He described Endlich's "gorgeous, gorgeous smile."
Geyer became emotional as he talked about how school administrators are "extremely privileged and honored" that Wilhelm's parents moved from Colorado to Harford County to find a school that could support their daughter.
"She is always up for a challenge," Geyer said. "Micki will keep us on our toes and not allow for complacency."
Geyer said Wills "shows love and a true passion for life."
"The John Archer School is extremely blessed to have John in our family for 18 years, and we are better people for it," he said.
Smith spent one year at John Archer, but "he has made such an impact on our lives and touched our hearts, that it feels like he's been with us for many, many years," Geyer said.
He said Smith connects with people by touching their noses with his finger, and that person must touch Smith's nose in return.
"If you are lucky enough to get that experience, you know that you have a friend for life," Geyer said.
The audience was treated to performances from the John Archer Chorus and a slide show of the graduates.
School board member Laura Runyeon, County Executive Barry Glassman and County Councilman Mike Perrone also spoke.
Runyeon noted a person's success should be measured less by the standards of others and more by how a person has mastered a skill he or she did not know before.
She said the John Archer graduates "teach us about the value of hard work and resolve."
"I wish for each of you, a long life of discovery and success measured by your own standards," Runyeon said.
Each graduate received a gift bag from the PTA, along with a Maryland High School Certificate of Program Completion.
They then gathered in the school cafeteria for a reception.
Shaib Abass, 21, of Havre de Grace, sat with his family as they ate cake and drank punch.
"He couldn't have progressed this much without John Archer," his mother, Felicia Abass, said.
She said her son will receive job training and support services from the Bayside Community Network in Cecil County.
"He's not ready to go, he's not ready to leave John Archer," Abass said. "Every morning he's going to wake up and say, 'school.'"
Sean and Jennifer Wilhelm moved to Harford from Colorado Springs, Colo. in 2005. The family lives in Bel Air, and their daughter, Micki, is 21 years old.
"The schools in Colorado weren't very good," Sean Wilhelm said. "She wasn't making any progress at all."
He and his wife searched for a community that had schools that could support Micki. They settled on Harford County, and Sean, a civilian worker with the Department of Defense, found a job at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
"I can actually feel the love that all of the teachers and the staff have here for all of the students," Wilhelm said.
His daughter will attend the Harford Center in Havre de Grace, where she will receive job training and adult day care.