Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Phoenix High School graduate Jason Howard shows his excitement as he walks across the stage to accept his diploma on Monday evening at the Gwinnett Performing Arts Center.
DULUTH -- Phoenix High School means a lot to a lot of young people.
For 101 students crossing the stage during Monday night's graduation ceremony, the event was something special. But to Katie Hogewood, it was "the best thing that's ever happened."
The 17-year-old graduate told her inspirational story to those in attendance at Gwinnett Performing Arts Center, where hundreds of parents, friends and other family members packed the auditorium for the event -- which was also the local district's first graduation of the year.
Hogewood described herself as "someone who was always stirring up trouble" before she made her way to Phoenix High School.
After being expelled from Brookwood High School several years ago, the girl said she found inspiration in her stepmother, who passed away in 2011 from pancreatic cancer.
"Back then, and even today, I look to her for guidance," said Hogewood, who will begin cooking classes in the coming months at Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta. She wants to be a chef.
"In growing up, I faced many challenges, but I learned that I had to have determination and motivation ... Remember, fellow students, that anything is possible. And the feeling of accomplishment is indescribable," said Hogewood, who was presented during the ceremony with the Robert L. Campbell (named for the school's founder) Scholarship.
The rumble of sneakers boomed from behind Hogewood where the 100 other graduates sat, stomping the floor in unison and applauding.
Somebody from the crowd shouted: "You nailed it!"
Founded 25 years ago for students in need of flexibility in their high school experience, the Gwinnett County Public Schools alternative learning environment is often the very push that pupils need on their paths.
Donna Scott said that students who attend Phoenix are a grateful bunch.
"When they get to this place in their learning careers ... getting to graduate ... they act like they won the lottery," Scott said.
Student Henry Alvarenga said students who attend the school "are not here to play around. They are here to work hard. And attending this school has taught me that hard work pays off."
Carolyn Lamar, a counseling secretary at Phoenix, said it's "touching" to hear the success stories of the students who graduate from the alternative school. "These students show they can persevere, even though they have difficult challenges."
Other speakers Monday night included students Nicolae Neculcea and Ali Salcedo, while John Powell accepted the Central Gwinnett Foundation Scholarship for his efforts.
According to its website, Phoenix is "an alternative and complement to the traditional high school program ... ensuring the success of students who may be unlikely, for a variety of reasons, to reach their potential in a traditional setting."
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