The more than 500 seniors who received diplomas Friday at Altoona Area High School included stars in academics, sports and the arts, a Navy SEAL hopeful and a young man who almost dropped out of school two years ago.
When Jacob Cuff walked into the high school office to quit school a few years ago, Principal Patty Burlingame was
walking out of her office at the same time.
Photo for the Mirror by Sean Steffy
Josh Huber (right) helps Josh Laich (left) with his collar at Altoona Area High School’s graduation on Friday.
Jacob Cuff, who graduated Friday from Altoona Area High School, talks with Dawn Morden, a facilitator and teacher in the school’s KIND program, which helps students like Cuff catch up on credits when they fall behind in school.
Michael Zimmerman graduated from Altoona Area High School on Friday and is pursuing his plans to become a U.S. Navy SEAL.
"I said, 'I'm signing myself out of school,' and she said, 'No, you're not,'" Cuff said.
Instead, Burlingame convinced Cuff to try an innovative district program that helps students stay in school and catch up with lost credits.
Cuff, who is the son of Calvin and Lisa Cuff of Altoona, had started working at a fast-food restaurant and had missed a lot of school, he said. He got behind in his classes, and then his grades started slipping, he said. Finally, he felt like he'd never catch up, and he thought the only answer was to drop out.
"I didn't have any motivation to come to school anymore, so I just gave up,'' he said.
But he decided to give the program Burlingame told him about, the KIND program, a chance. The program, which stands for Kids in New Directions, provides individualized instruction for students who have fallen behind in school for reasons such as attendance, discipline or social issues, school officials said. The program allows students to stay in the high school while taking core courses like math, science and English once a day in the KIND classroom with teacher Dawn Morden, who oversees the program, and other instructors.
"They just need a little encouragement,'' Morden said.
She said Cuff did very well in the program, even making honor roll during some of his marking periods. The teachers get to know the students because they work closely with them and even celebrate landmark events such as birthdays, Morden said.
"I am so proud of this young man,'' she said. "He has really come such a long way.''
Another graduate, Michael Zimmerman of Altoona, seeks to be a Navy SEAL, and local Navy recruiter Chief Petty Officer Jeff Rachwalski said Zimmerman has already completed several levels necessary that others have failed to achieve.
"I believe in my heart of hearts that he's got what it takes to make it,'' Rachwalski said.
Zimmerman said when he was 12 years old, he read the book "Lone Survivor,'' a nonfiction book about a heroic U.S. Navy SEALs mission in Afghanistan, and it set the course for the rest of his life. The book was made into a film by the same name.
"I couldn't put that book down,'' Zimmerman said. "I believe I was meant to read that book.''
According to the Navy's website, Navy SEALs, which stands for the Navy's Sea, Air and Land Forces, are "expertly trained to deliver highly specialized, intensely challenging warfare capabilities that are beyond the means of standard military forces.'' Candidates must first undergo "what is widely considered to be the most physically and mentally demanding military training in existence,'' according to the website.
"Then comes the tough part,'' the website further stated of the elite force established by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. "The job of essentially taking on any situation or foe that the world has to offer.''
Zimmerman has already passed several hurdles that a lot of young men fail to become a SEAL, Rachwalski said. He has cleared a demanding physical exam, a battery of academic tests and the biggest obstacle of all, a rigorous physical fitness test that more than showed his skills, Rachwalski said.
"Mike is an exceptional person,'' Rachwalski said. "A lot of people want to be a SEAL, but most don't make it. His scores are very good, and I think he will make it all the way.''
Zimmerman, who is scheduled to start basic training at the end of July, is confident that this is what he was meant to do.
"Not only do I believe in God, but I believe that this is the path He has set for me,'' Zimmerman said.
Two of the other 505 graduates decided to take a novel approach to their speeches when they stood together at the podium to speak during the graduation ceremony, rather than addressing the audience separately.
First, Salutatorian Courtney Chamberlain spoke, but then she was joined by Valedictorian Olga Dorabiala a few minutes later because the two seniors decided to share their speech time. They said they were separated by one gradepoint average only, so they decided to speak together.
The young women took turns saying parts of the combined speech that hit on bits of memories of high school and advice for the future.
"We are not just a number, or a grade or a percentage,'' Dorabiala said. "We are something more.''
They recalled that theirs is the first class to survive a bitter, wintry "Polar Vortex,'' which caused a lot of snow days and also made them "the first class to graduate halfway through summer, " they said.
"Over the past four years, we have made some pretty amazing memories,'' Chamberlain said. "We are survivors.''
Before they spoke, fellow classmate and the other Salutatorian Chelsea Keller reminded the graduating class that they'd be joining the ranks of some prestigious alumni like jazz musician Paul Winter, U.S. Coast Guard Admiral James Loy, the Sheetz brothers and renowned ophthalmologist Dr. James Calvin Folk.
"So what do you have in common with all of these distinguished people?'' Keller asked. "All are graduates of AAHS. Now we, too, are alumni.''