In lobbying for a bill that allows students following individualized education plans instead of a standard curriculum to participate in senior activities, senior Kaitlyn Thompson took her goal from Jackson to Jefferson City, Mo. Thompson, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, talked in front of the school board and the House Education Committee in support of the policy change.
She and her mother, Traci Ritter, worked with Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, to draft the legislation, which was signed by Gov. Jay Nixon last year.
Thursday, she reaped the benefits of their work. As Thompson led her row of students up to the stage and back to their seats, there were cheers from her family and, for her mother, a few tears.
"I thought I was going to make it," Traci Ritter said. "I almost did."
Two students last year and two this year participated in graduation because of the law, said associate superintendent Dr. Beth Emmendorfer. The policy allows students with disabilities to participate in senior activities provided they have completed four years of high school and are making progress in their individualized education plan. Before, students could not participate in graduation if they continued receiving the services from the district, which can extend up until the age of 21.
Thompson will attend the Cape Girardeau Career and Technology Center next school year to study early childhood education. She will also continue attending the high school for a few hours per day.
Ritter has been active in raising disability awareness throughout the district. She said she is looking forward to the day when it is commonplace for students with disabilities to take part in similar activities.
Of the 382 graduates, 17 students will serve in the military. The class, the district's first for the A+ program, had 23 graduates meet the requirements to receive tuition at two-year colleges.
Faculty announced thousands of dollars in local scholarships. They also announced the valedictorian, Stephanie Howard, and salutatorian, Sydney Stein.
The commencement speaker chosen by students was social studies teacher Ken Markin. During his speech, which was right before diplomas were handed out, Markin joked that he was the remaining obstacle for the students.
"The slower I talk, the longer you have to wait for your moment of triumph," he said, slowly pronouncing each word. "What power you have bestowed on me."
Markin told students that life often ends up differently than planned. While graduates yearn for more freedom, others in the audience probably wish they were 18 again, he said.
"Or some might be thinking, 'Boy, I wish I had a full head of hair,'" he said.
Going through life with a positive attitude makes the journey more enjoyable, he said. He referred to his challenges as a college student caring for his mother, who died of cancer during his sophomore year.
"What will matter is the approach you took on life and the positive impact you had on others," he said.