By GARY L. THOMPSON
Sunday Times Staff Reporter
SOUTHGATE — Gratitude and well-wishing marked Wednesday’s graduation ceremony for the largest class in the history of the Southgate Adult and Community Education program.
A total of 208 graduates — 83 men and 125 women — were joined by an overflowing crowd at Allen Park Civic Arena, who witnessed a processional march to the tune of the Southgate Anderson Symphonic Band, presentations of scholarships and addresses from U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) by video and a representative of Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Graduates ranged in age from 17 to 59, with an average age of 21 and an average of three semesters spent in the program. Some expressed a special appreciation for Wednesday’s pomp and circumstance.
“I never thought I would have a chance like this again, to be honest with you,” said Michael Crawford, one of the program’s main speakers. “I thought when I left school in 1990, I thought I would never have that opportunity again. That’s why I’m feeling so blessed right now on where I’m at.”
Southgate also holds a charter membership in the National Adult Education Honor Society. The 34 graduates who met the strict criteria for being inducted into the honor society was the largest group in the school’s history.
Like Crawford, every graduate had suspended their high school education, and chose later to come back to school.
Debra Lynn Stasevich should have graduated from Melvindale High School in 1968, but married in 1967 and had two children before she was 20 years old. Her 40-year-old son, 38-year-old daughter and 4-year-old grandson came from Las Vegas to see her graduate at age 59. Stasevich had also been living in Las Vegas since 1981, but returned to Melvindale, the family’s home since 1950, to take care of her 82-year-old father, who has dementia.
Now single again, Stasevich wants to build her retirement fund back up over the next 15 years by going into the medical field. Despite 25 to 30 credits in bookkeeping, accounting, computer accounting, Russian and Spanish from Clark County Community College in the 1980s — and despite holding real estate and aesthetician’s licenses and owning a successful businesses — Stasevich said it’s impossible to apply for a job at any hospital or at the post office without a high school diploma.
“By grace of God,” she said, a course catalog for Southgate’s program came to her house, and she began thinking of getting a general equivalency diploma. Stasevich said she failed the math portion at first, but her algebra teacher, Ken Williamson, helped turn “my worst nightmare into one of my most wonderful memorable experiences.”
With her community college transcripts and testing for credit, and after finishing a five-week correspondence course in American history, Stasevich finally was able to receive her diploma Wednesday.
“You don’t know what life has in store for you,” Stasevich said. “Never in my wildest dreams I thought I would be at this age with this happening to me.
“Because we don’t know what tomorrow holds for us, the thing that cannot be taken away from you is your education, and the thing I was missing in my identity was my high school education unfinished. I am walking with pride and dignity, and not feeling not one bit silly at my age,” Stasevich said.
Planning to pursue an associate degree at Henry Ford Community College, Stasevich has told her grandson that he’s the youngest one in school while she is the oldest, and promised that Grandma will be at his graduation. Stasevich added that she is trying to prime him for Michigan State University’s green-and-white colors.
Crawford also is thinking of pursuing science or teaching at HFCC. Besides interest in those two fields, after being laid off and “bouncing around” as a maintenance laborer since 2001, he said he also decided to pursue a high school degree to help his daughter with schoolwork.
Unlike when he went to high school, he said, pre-algebra is taught at the middle school level now, and he could not help his daughter with it. The Southgate adult ed brochure — which is mailed throughout the Downriver area — came to his Ecorse home also, inviting him to finish the diploma he hadn’t gotten from Ecorse High School years ago.
Crawford was glad he decided to finish school in Southgate, calling it the “best thing that ever happened to me.”
He said adult education programs have been on the decline in other school districts. Though it once seemed that every Downriver district had a night school or “something of that sort, it’s not that way any more.”
Tom Salcido believes in the program, saying that without it, he doesn’t know where he would be now.
A Southgate resident who grew up in Taylor and Lincoln Park, Salicido started working at age 20 at Grief Brothers Corp. in Taylor, which made fiber containers and fiber drums. He was 50 when it closed in 2003. He dropped out of Lincoln Park High School, and no one would hire him without a diploma.
“I really needed it,” Salcido said. “I’m glad that the program was available. I hope it stays around for many years, because there’s probably other people in my situation.”
Two Southgate Adult and Community Education teachers were named the Michigan Association of Adult and Community Education’s and Michigan Alternative Education Organization’s 2008 Teacher of the Year.
Southgate Community Schools previously has been recognized with the Michigan Association of School Boards’ 2005 Educational Excellence Award, as well as MAACE’s 2004 School District of the Year and MAEO’s 2004 School of the Year.
Supt. David Peden was chosen as MAACE’s 2006 Adult Education Advocate of the Year.
(Contact Gary L. Thompson at [email protected].)