For The John Archer School's eight seniors, the smallest class to graduate Harford County Public Schools, Friday was a day to celebrate all kinds of progress.
"We have watched them grow, and today, they shine," Patricia Walling, principal of Harford's only public school for students with disabilities, told the parents, relatives and friends gathered at the Bel Air school for its 43rd annual commencement.
Dressed in shiny red caps and gowns, the eight graduates proudly walked, or were driven, down the aisle to be presented with gifts and certificates marking their completion from the school.
Assistant principal Randy Geyer read off each student's individual accomplishments, from the fashion stylings of Chrishawn Curry to Ryan Dulski's love of Disney songs and Michael Diggs' interest in garbage trucks.
Chrishawn was able to "stand up for up to 60 minutes without protest, able to hold her head up," while Joshua Hernandez "has a smile as big as the ocean and a heart to match," he noted.
They and their four classmates – Carrie Drabic, Matthew Schwartz, Kortney Telsee and Steven Sheats – were treated to a festive lunch in the cafeteria, where a slide show of their achievements played and the tables were decorated with childhood portraits of the graduates.
"John Archer is a place where everyone achieves and everyone has successes," PTA president David Bycoffe said before giving out the graduates' gifts. "Everyone at John Archer has value; everyone here succeeds."
Alysson Krchnavy, board of education member, said John Archer's graduation makes her realize life is not about being perfect.
"Thank you for reminding me what progress looks like," she said, her voice quavering. "Life doesn't get easier, but with progress, it will always get better."
County Executive Barry Glassman praised the graduates for their hard work and accomplishments.
"Quite frankly, there are a lot of children that have a nice, smooth path, it's paved and it's easy to make it to today, and somehow they get lost," Glassman said. "But you folks, you've had the uphill trail. It's been bumpy, there's been shoots all to the sides, and yet you made it; you stuck to it."
Some relatives came from hundreds and thousands of miles to watch the graduates on their special day.
"We couldn't miss this," Hal Cross, grandfather of Ryan Dulski, said. He came with Jean Cross from Melbourne, Fla., for the weekend.
Hal Cross said Ryan's progress was visible and he has noticed a "big difference" in his grandson.
"He has got so much out of it," Hal Cross said. "He can do things now; he's a computer freak."
His wife agreed, saying: "It's hard to believe that we have reached this point."
Hal Cross said John Archer has been a good environment.
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"All you have to do is watch the staff," he said. Ryan is moving on to the Harford Center, a day habilitation program that serves adults with disabilities.
Ryan's mother, Donna Dulski of Edgewood, added: "We can't say enough about the school. He loved coming."
Although "this year's been tough," she said, "he has come a long way."
Ana Maldonado, aunt of Joshua Hernandez, came from Manhattan, Kansas, to watch him complete John Archer.
"I am very proud," she said, adding about her trip: "I had to do this. He has grown up a lot. He has changed; we are very proud of him."
His mother, Annette Hernandez, of Abingdon, noted Joshua has been at John Archer since age 3.
"He loves it here," she said. Joshua will be moving on to The Arc.