This group of 18 young people stood on the edge of dropping out of school in recent years.

But thanks to finding their way to Project for Alternative Learning, they walked across the stage of the Helena Middle School auditorium Friday afternoon to receive their high school diplomas.

“This is the most heartwarming day of the year,” said PAL principal Stephanie Thennis, following Friday’s commencement ceremony.

“Every single day I’m reminded of what it really means to persevere, to work hard and to problem solve,” she said.

“I am in awe of these kids,” she said following the ceremony.

“Most of them, if not all of them were on the verge of dropping out,” she said. “They took charge of their education to give it one more try. And here they are. They all had some kind of barrier that they’ve battled, and they’ve not let that barrier stop them. That perseverance to me is everything.”

The PAL setting, the smaller environment, the different instruction, resonates with them, she said. As a result, many of them flourish, growing in confidence and skills.

“The academic expectation is high and they’ve done it,” Thennis said. “It hasn’t been easy.”

One of those people is commencement speaker, Amanda WalkingChild, who two decades ago was ready to drop out of high school but found her way to PAL in time.

“Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have even imagined being here,” she told the graduates.

WalkingChild, who earned an education degree at the University of Montana, is the Indian Education Instructional Coach for Helena Public Schools.

A member of the Ojibway people and originally from Manitoba, she said that school was rough for her when her family moved to Montana.

“I am a quiet person. It kind of shut me down,” she said. “I lost interest in school. I struggled.”

She traveled to attend powwows and other cultural events and lost academic credits.

She was bullied by non-natives at the school.

“I just had enough,” she said. “I’m done. So I quit.”

But then PAL accepted her.

The PAL principal, “opened the door for me in high school.”

“He allowed me to be me -- as who I am as an individual. And I felt comfortable.

“All the staff members were wonderful people,” she said.

“I just want all these graduates to know -- it’s your day. And don’t let things bring you down. Because one day you will be very successful and have your own life and be your own individual.”

WalkingChild and her 12-year-old daughter Shayla sang an Ojibway honor song for the graduates “and their journey to come.”

PAL graduates Kelley Rose and Ashton Rogers also performed an original song they had composed, “Swirling Starkids.”

The lyrics soared with their joy:

Climb to a mountain top…

Don’t give up now.

The world isn’t finished with you.

There’s more magic to do.

We will go high, swirling starkids, dancing through the night to kiss the morning light.

...So hold your head high and you’ll know what to do.

Take a deep breath.

Become a shooting star. ...Let the magic take you far.

A few minutes after the ceremony, the exuberant singer Rose said of graduation, “I feel like 10,000 pounds have been lifted from my shoulders.” Her next stop -- study overseas with the American Field Service.

“I’m very excited,” said another PAL graduate Kristopher Davenport, who is planning to enter trade school. “I’m very optimistic. I’m ready to get out there and start on my future.”

“I’m about to explode!” chimed in another happy voice.

Reporter Marga Lincoln can be reached at 447-4083 marga.lincoln@helenair.com

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