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Fifteen students from Columbia’s Operation Graduation program did what some of them had once thought unlikely. They earned high school diplomas.

On Thursday, the students were joined by family and school staff in the auditorium to celebrate their accomplishments. The students wore caps and gowns and received their diplomas on stage at the Operation Graduation commencement.

The program has graduated 128 students at risk of dropping out since its inception in 2010-11.

“Those obstacles, those challenges, those situations that at times were great struggles for you, now as you graduate from high school, serve as a great resource for you,” said Superintendent Jeff Simons. “So when you go onto college or into the workplace, or experience a challenge in the future, you know that you will overcome that challenge.”

Rather than a having keynote speaker, a video was played with reflections from each of the graduates. They spoke about their challenges with traditional school and how Operation Graduation helped them attend classes regularly, complete work assignments on time and eventually graduate.

“It’s smaller classes and you see that everyone is there to help you,” said Kayla Fallon ’17. She plans to study criminal justice at Hudson Valley Community College in the fall.

Nick Mastrobuono ’17 thanked school administrators for getting him into the program, which takes place in a single classroom in the basement of Columbia.

“If it wasn’t for that, I don’t think I’d be graduating,” he said.

The program’s director, special education teacher Melissa Gleason, and Principal John Sawchuk both congratulated the students.

“It’s been my honor to work with you guys,” Mr. Sawchuk said. “I know our conversations haven’t always been the most pleasant. I remember many of you saying ‘Why don’t you just back off?’ And I always said to you ‘when someone just leaves you alone, it’s a sure sign they gave up on you.’ We never give up on our students here. And we never gave up on you.”

The celebration was bittersweet, as Mrs. Gleason prepares to leave Columbia this summer after 17 years of service to become a principal for Capital Region BOCES. She started Operation Graduation and grew the program with teaching assistant Shelley Woodward.

At the end of the ceremony, the students surprised Mrs. Gleason by walking back on stage and each of them handed her a flower and hugged her goodbye.

“I’m honored to have been involved with such a successful program such as Operation Graduation,” Mrs. Gleason said. “Giving our students an alternative safe environment helps our community be more inclusive and meet the needs of all our students.”