The stage - if you can call a patchwork of six-inch risers a stage - was set up in the school's "gymteria," a room that is part gymnasium, part cafeteria. A computer cart covered with a white paper tablecloth served as a diploma table. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the colors of caps and gowns worn by the graduates.
But none of that mattered.
The hundreds of parents and cousins, aunts and uncles, siblings, teachers and counselors who crowded into the Gateway School on Tuesday night came for one reason: to see 24 students - many of whom never expected to make it through high school - receive diplomas.
"I was never into the school thing. I dropped out in 10th grade. I failed 11th grade. I didn't think I'd ever graduate," said Tara Creamer, 18, who says she was kicked out of North Carroll Middle School for shoving a teacher. "It feels great to be here."
Tara was one of 24 students participating in graduation ceremonies at Gateway, Carroll County's alternative school for middle and high school students serving extended suspensions or struggling with learning disabilities or behavioral and emotional problems. A record 32 students earned diplomas this year, the school's first in a $5.4 million building outside Westminster.
Graduations can be raucous occasions with parents whooping and cheering their children and with students high-fiving and catcalling their friends. Gateway's commencement was no different in this respect.
But during a ceremony in which Gateway staff members shared a few stories about each graduate, there were far more heartfelt moments than typically seen at traditional high school graduations, longtime educators said.
Janice Moore, a crisis and guidance counselor, stepped down from the stage and sought out Frank Douma's mother in the audience to deliver the diploma that Frank said he would not have earned without his mom's persistent prodding.
Instructional assistant Kelly Garvick fought back tears as she summoned Rachel Hill to the stage to receive a "star volunteer" pin for completing 416 hours of community service - and that was before she voluntarily toted home the box of graduation programs to assemble and staple on her own.
Audience members applauded wildly after English teacher Dottie Piper introduced Kimberly Reckord, 17, who she said was sent to Gateway for skipping school and failing grades. Kym earned her diploma a year ahead of schedule, having produced "commendable attendance" and "no grade on a report card less than an A," Piper said.
Moore had to pause a number of times to compose herself - prompting students to shout out expressions of affection for her - while trying to describe the significance of Chris Poletynski graduating.
"I have had the privilege of watching Chris overcome many hurdles, some admittedly of his own doing and others that were placed in his path," she said. "I will never forget how you called about your very first full-time job and how proud you looked trying on your cap."
Carrell Wright, 18, said he could not have been happier to graduate.
"It means the world to be here tonight because nobody in my family has graduated in a long time," said Carrell, known for his loud outfits and the moped he rode to school in every kind of weather. "I'm the first notch in the belt going in the right direction."
This year's graduates include boys who spent time in juvenile detention facilities for stealing cars, using and selling drugs or assault. But also in the same school as students considered the most violent and disruptive in the Carroll County school system are those who asked to be transferred to Gateway because they felt isolated or bullied at other schools.
The night's festivities served as something of a reunion for graduating seniors who finished their classes in January and those who attended school through this week. Gathering in Piper's room an hour before graduation, students pored over Gateway yearbooks, low-tech, 60-page volumes filled with black and white photographs on matte paper. And they talked about the jobs they have and the jobs they hope to get.
"The easy part's done," Robert Forrest told his classmates during one of three student commencement addresses. "The hard part's livin'. Jobs, families and yes, bills, that's the hard part. But now that we have a diploma, that should be a little easier."