Tony Casper had some advice for the students in Kenosha Unified’s ITED program’s Class of 2019 as they sat with peers from different high schools in the district waiting to receive diplomas during graduation exercises held at the Ralph J. Houghton Performance Center Tuesday night.

The assistant principal at Indian Trail High School and Academy who delivered the commencement address told them that they must know who their real friends are, find the things that bring them joy, persist with the grit that has gotten them to graduation day and to heed those who’ve hassled them.

He said their true friends aren’t the people who take out their cell phones while “you’re doing something stupid” or fighting with them.

“Your real friends are the ones that want to fight for your future. They’re the ones who pull you back when you are making the bad choices in your life,” Casper said. “So, advice No. 1 is to fill your life with people like that.”

Casper said that turning to drugs, alcohol and other vices that destroy lives isn’t the answer to filling the void they may encounter.

“So, I ask you to fill that emptiness with something positive — a job, family, a hobby or something you’re interested in,” he said. “These are things that we can hold on to when it seems life is turned upside down.”

He said they had the “grit” to overcome the obstacles that has brought them this far.

Quoting the words of Frederick Douglass, he said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

“You have struggled. You have shown progress,” he said.

Those who’ve “hassled” them to go to school, finish homework, do their best and to keep going are the ones who “cared about you the most.”

“We’re the people that did not give up on you,” he said. “There’s plenty of people who’ll give up on you. But the people that hassled you, the people who demand the best in you, those are the people that love you.”

Tuesday’s commencement ceremony was not the traditional high school graduation, but recognized students who, for a variety of reasons, were not able to meet credit requirements to graduate with their cohorts. Unified’s alternative graduation program issues diplomas to those students meeting all graduation requirements while taking and passing a series of assessments known as the Iowa Tests of Educational Development. The program honored 192 graduates.

Diplomas were given to those who completed equivalency programs at Bradford High School, Harborside Academy, Indian Trail, Kenosha eSchool, Hillcrest School, Reuther and Tremper high schools.

Among the graduates was Golden Jenkins, of Kenosha, who received her diploma as a student at Reuther. Jenkins said she had to drop out of school her junior year to help care for her mother who suffered a stroke and later died.

“I’m doing this for her, to show her that her kid did achieve something and it’s going to be fine,” said Jenkins, who is currently attending Gateway Technical College studying nursing. “(My mom) would’ve been overjoyed knowing that I’d graduated.”

Jenna Boyington, who currently lives in Florida and attended Reuther though the “Transitions” program, came back for the ceremony to receive her diploma.

“It’s been really hard for me, but the program that I was in, they really helped to get me where I needed to be,” said Boyington, who plans to become an emergency medical technician. “They really care about their students. If you have a question, they will sit down and discuss the topic with you … and make sure you know it.”

CaSandra Gregory, who graduated from Bradford, said she was “really nervous, but excited” about graduating. She was still in the process of choosing a college, but would start in a two-year program before attending a university.

“I want to major in education. I want to be a bilingual teacher,” she said.

Brian Geiger, Kenosha Unified’s regional coordinator of leadership and learning for secondary education, was the master of ceremonies.

“Regardless of what we’ve been through and what we will go through in the future, what really matters to us most is how we choose to respond to the challenges we face each day,” he said. “The question before each one of us is whether we will crumble or whether we will persevere. Whether we’ll be devastated by our mistakes or make the choice to rise and try again. Whether challenges will finish us or whether we will choose to finish strong.”

The wish for all of them was “to choose to finish strong,” he said.

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