'It's never too late' for dropouts; Graduates: The path not taken was the one leading to a high school diploma, but that doesn't have to be the end of the story.


IF YOU want to witness the triumph of the human spirit, mark your calendar for next year's 16th annual high school diploma ceremony at Howard Community College.

It will take place roughly the first Sunday in November. You might be tempted to stay home and watch football, as was Howard County Executive James N. Robey on Sunday. But Robey chose the more thrilling show, participating in the commencement of about 100 former high school dropouts who chose to drop back in.

I sat there, wishing that the know-nothings and delinquents who have cheapened the high school diploma had been forced to attend. Sunday's graduates wore the robes and mortarboards of a standard high school commencement as they marched across the auditorium stage while friends and relatives cheered and cried. Commencements are such wonderfully sappy affairs.

But these were no ordinary graduates, and each is a double-barreled human interest story -- one, the tale of failure to complete high school, the other, the story of the journey back.

Meet a few of Sunday's graduates:

George Hackett dropped out in 1967 and eventually became a Howard County public school custodian. After a reorganization, he realized that he would need a diploma to keep the job he had. He got the diploma Sunday. "I can read words and know their meaning," he told his fellow graduates. "If I want, I can move into another field of work."

LaDonya Jamilah dropped out in the ninth grade and had her first child the next year, at 17. At 21, she had a second child and became a single parent. Then, in January, she enrolled in General Educational Development (GED) classes at Howard Community College. She's not only earned the diploma; she's taking 11 credits at the college and dares to dream of the Johns Hopkins University.

"It's never too late," she told her fellow graduates.

Teresa and Ever Antonio Martinez graduated together. Natives of El Salvador, they met in Washington while both were working in menial jobs to support family back home. Between them, they have two children now, two high school diplomas, one U.S. citizenship and another in the works. Teresa plans to study early childhood education at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"I have dreamed of this day," she said.

Amy Bradley dropped out of high school in Colorado "to get married and get out of the house." Her mother, Pat Penrod, traveled across the country to be with her daughter Sunday. "She had typical rough teen-age years," Penrod said, "but now she's opened her horizons. She worked at every fast-food place known to man. She got tired of coming home at night smelling like fried food."

Holding her 2-year-old son, Anthony, Bradley, 23, said she has her sights set on college. "For years I've been thinking about going into physical therapy."

There are two ways to earn an alternative diploma. One is to study for the GED at a community college or an adult literacy center, then pass the test. The other route is the external diploma program. It allows an adult to demonstrate high school-level skills.

One of the enduring myths of American education is that the GED and external diploma programs are walks in the park. In fact, they're difficult. Last year, 6,446 of 11,655 Marylanders who took the 7 1/2-hour GED test passed it, joining the likes of Kweisi Mfume, Bill Cosby, actress Kelly McGillis and Wendy's founder Dave Thomas.

Tamera Rembert, 17, was another speaker Sunday. An aspiring writer, she borrowed from the poet Robert Frost. At the fork in the road, she said, "I chose the wrong path."

But you can always go back.

Rally for a living wage at Johns Hopkins University

During the campaign, Baltimore Mayor-elect Martin O'Malley supported a proposal to extend the Baltimore "living wage" to all city institutions receiving more than $100,000 in government support.

It will be fascinating to see whether O'Malley fulfills that pledge, particularly in the case of the Johns Hopkins University, where 1,000 workers are paid less than the living wage, currently $7.90 an hour. The recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state aid, Hopkins says it pays higher than the federal minimum wage and vows to phase in an increase to near the living wage within three years.

Many of those workers and their supporters will rally on the campus at noon today to urge faster action.

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