| 2015 Q2 | story by MARK FAGAN    |

Jacob Atwood

Each spring in Lawrence, hundreds of students walk across a stage, shake the principals’ hand and leave their home stadium with tassels turned, diplomas in hand and traditional futures ahead.

But the relative handful who earn a special trip past Rick Henry’s desk inside a former elementary school oftentimes reach a more satisfying conclusion.

They ring a bell.

“What they say about success being a journey, not a destination, is true,” says Jacob Atwood, a 30-year-old restaurant server who completed his high school education this spring, earning him his opportunity to ring the wall-mounted bell at the Centennial Adult Education Center, 2145 La.

“This is an accomplishment that has built confidence in me. I’ll be able to take the next steps now…to finding the career I want to have someday.”

Atwood is among more than two dozen adults to graduate this year through the Lawrence Diploma Completion Program (LDCP), which offers online courses and in-person resources for people 18 and older. Students who finish the program receive a diploma through either Free State High School or Lawrence High School, depending on where the student lives. The Lawrence school district also has a program to help adults earn General Education Development (GED) credentials, which signify that a student has attained academic skills equal to those of those who have graduated from high school.

Both programs are available to adults who, for one reason or another, never managed to close their secondary careers with enough credits to fill a transcript. And in today’s competitive economy, the difference between having and not having earned a diploma mean more than finding the right job, or earning additional money over the course of a career.

Earning a diploma or a GED credential can mean the difference between employment and unemployment, or something even more significant.

“It pays off in a number of different ways,” Henry says, who is entering his third year as the district’s Director of Adult Education Services after 24 years as a teacher and secondary principal elsewhere in Kansas. “The financial payoff is what most people think of, but a lot of people don’t think about what that means. It means a better quality of life. It’s a better situation for their families. And it means earning something and gaining something that was, before now, out of reach. It’s the whole area of satisfaction, of self-image, of pride.”

Students walk through the center’s doors after following any number of paths. Some are a year or two out of high school. Many are in their 20s or 30s, sometimes encouraged by employers to finish their educational jobs and pick up additional skills. Others are of retirement age, looking to complete something left incomplete long ago.

But whatever has gotten in the way, Henry says, doesn’t have to hold anyone back.

“You know the saying, ‘When you come to the end of your rope, hang on?’ We’re the knot,” he says. “We’re the knot that people are hanging onto. They’re accomplishing things they never thought possible, and the things that people have been telling them their whole lives that they never would.”

Atwood, for one, attended two high schools in Topeka before dropping out his sophomore year. He’d been unable to make classes fit into his schedule as he worked full- and part-time jobs to help his family pay bills.

By 2006 he’d arrived at the Lawrence Adult Education Center, inside a former elementary school just south of Lawrence High School. He managed to pick up a single course credit before concluding that earning the full 23 credits he still needed for graduation would be too much to handle.

By January 2012, however, he was back. He took the program’s online courses, working on his laptop from home and stopping by the center for in-person instruction and, at times, accepting off-site encouragement and support.

“If I went a couple weeks without showing up, they’d call and check on me,” Atwood says. “The relationships with the teachers, and others who were invested in me, pushed me forward.”

The Lawrence Diploma Completion Program is tailored to meet the needs of such nontraditional students. The program:

• Offers a full range of core courses at ninth-, 10th-, 11th- and 12th-grade levels. Courses span four core subject areas, such as math, language arts, science and social studies, and also branch into electives and other areas, including fine arts, physical education, foreign languages and health. Advanced-placement (AP) courses also are available.

• All courses are provided online, and students are expected to complete work at their own pace. Students may connect from off-site or stop by the center’s large classroom, which used to be the library, to use desktop PCs or a laptop. Teachers are available to provide assistance when needed.

• The center is closed in July but open to program students from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

While students in the GED program are required to take their courses on-site, students in the diploma-completion program only need to show up once per semester. That’s to take final exams.

And ring the bell.

“It’s really loud,” Henry says, with a proud smile. “And everyone in there claps. I get chills up and down my spine every time.”

The price is right, too. Students who enroll in August don’t pay tuition, Henry says. Those who wait until January pay a $50 administrative fee, although he’s willing to make arrangements for prospective diploma-completion students who might find that to be an insurmountable barrier.

“If someone wants to be in our program,” he says, “I’m going to figure out a way.”

Atwood knows the value. A server at Mad Greek, he wants to start taking classes at Johnson County Community College. He’s been planning a wedding.

Now he’s happy to be sharing his story with district officials and anyone else — especially fellow adults who, like him, simply needed a chance to finish what they’d started, no matter how long ago it had begun.

“I saw an 80-year-old man graduate,” he says. “If he can do it, and I can do it, anyone can do it.”

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