“We’re here to celebrate 10 students — 10 very special students to my heart and I’m sure to all of yours,” began Wayne Varney, special education coordinator at Princess Anne High School (PAHS).
“Students who come to the West Building at Princess Anne arrive to us with challenges they face daily that most of us will never know what they go through,” Varney continued. “These individuals come to school with a desire to learn that is somewhat unmatched by anyone else.”
That desire to learn was celebrated by Varney, his West Building colleagues, PAHS administrators and an auditorium full of guests at PAHS June 15.
The special education department at PAHS serves students with moderate to severe disabilities in an area of the school known as the “West Building.” Staff prepare students to function as independently as possible through community-based instruction, vocational training, domestic classes and physical education/recreational activities. West Building students and staff also manage the school’s coffee shop and participate in school-sponsored activities and clubs.
PAHS hosted a special ceremony for its West Building Class of 2016 graduates who would not be able to attend the high school’s commencement at the Virginia Beach Convention Center.
Despite the smaller venue, there was no shortage of pomp and circumstance – a processional, music caps, gowns, speeches, photographs and plenty of applause.
Upstaging the celebratory surroundings, however, was the enthusiasm of the graduates themselves.
“Happy graduation!” remarked one proud graduate from her seat several times to the delight of her peers and invited guests.
Before PAHS principal Daniel Smith issued diplomas to students, Varney took time to recognize the unique qualities and talents of each graduate.
He noted Mariah’s piano playing skills and Malik’s fashion sense.
“You can’t really see his get up under that robe,” said Varney, “but Malik is [always] impeccably dressed and he works very, very hard in his vocational endeavors.”
Cailtin was recognized for being a voracious reader and Neil for always speaking his mind.
“And then there’s Tyler,” continued Varney, “through all of the challenges Tyler faces he’s always willing to cheer up someone else when he passes them in the hall.”
Varney noted, “Peggy’s only been here for two years, but in that time she’s won over the hearts of all of us.”
“And how could we forget Caroline,” said Varney. “Caroline has a fantastic memory and she is so organized. I don’t know what we’re going to do as far as keeping track of our social events and everyone’s birthdays. She will be sorely missed.”
The bittersweet sentiments expressed by Varney were shared by all PAHS staff who have gotten to know the students well over their many years at the school. In the state of Virginia, qualifying students are eligible to receive educational services though the age of 22.
“Most of them have been here for seven years because they start here at around age 14 and go until 22,” said Sharon Boudreau, a PAHS special education teacher who took photos at the ceremony.
“For these children, who are graduating at the age of 22, they have been in school for 20 years. That’s an awesome thing. It’s one of the biggest days in their lives and in their parents’ lives,” she said.
Boudreau captured each moment of the important day as students crossed the stage to receive their diplomas from Smith; congratulatory handshakes from Veleka Gatling, executive director of the Office of Programs for Exceptional Children, and Daniel Keever, senior executive director of High Schools; and a final hug from Varney.
“You have earned something no one can take from you, a high school diploma,” Smith told students before officially declaring them graduates of the PAHS Class of 2016.
“You have a right to be proud of this great accomplishment,” Smith continued, “and I know I speak for everyone in this room in telling you how proud we are of each and every one of you today.”
Dozens of proud parents, relatives, students and staff celebrated with graduates after the ceremony. There were more photos taken and, to the delight of the graduates, lots of cake.
Graduation is significant for any high school senior, but the milestone for West Building students is especially meaningful to Varney and the PAHS staff.
Varney said, “We hope that the experiences they’ve had here have been as pleasurable for them as it has been for us.”