Harrison D-2 celebrates first graduation for second-chance students
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E3 Academy graduate Khadejiah Biglow accepts her high school diploma from Harrison School District 2 superintendent Andre Spencer on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 at Centennial Hall in downtown Colorado Springs. (Matt Steiner, The Gazette)

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Markice Perry quietly took his high school diploma and the ceremonial handshake from Harrison School District 2 superintendent Andre Spencer. An enormous smile burst onto Perry's face as family and friends let out a loud roar.

And as the cheering subsided, a loud voice rang out from the full house at Centennial Hall in downtown Colorado Springs.

"That's my boy," yelled Perry's proud grandmother as he turned and pointed his smile in her direction.

Perry joined 11 others Saturday wearing blue graduation gowns and mortar boards as the first graduating class of the of the district's E3 Academy, an initiative that began in early 2013 to help high school dropouts, or those on the verge of dropping out, earn a high school diploma while building valuable job skills. The moniker "E3" stands for "engage-educate-employ."

"This has been an experience that has given them confidence they'll need for the real world and for the trials that they're going to face," said E3 Academy principal Damon DiFabio.

Joy Morales-Cress, managing director of the academy, introduced each graduate Saturday. One-by-one, she tearfully shared anecdotes about each of her students' successes.

"Each of these kids has a story," she said. "And those stories are all compelling."

Morales-Cress explained how some of the students who entered E3 with little confidence ended up as leaders, setting examples for the other students. She hugged Scott Fowler and told the crowd that he decided doing lessons on Saturday and Sunday would help him graduate even faster. What he started became contagious and most of the students - and the staff -- began working weekends, she said.

Lorenzo Archuleta spoke about the accelerated program before Saturday's ceremony began and said he was missing "a lot of credits" when his mother urged him to enter E3 in March 2013.

"I would be two years behind in my graduating class if I hadn't been in this program," Archuleta said, explaining that the students did online construction half the day and then trained for a vocation for the duration.

"It will help get me better opportunities down the line," he said.

Archuleta said he has been working in the academy's construction program, learning plumbing, framing, electrical and welding work.

DiFabio said the construction students built a house from the ground up and it sold in September for nearly $300,000.

The academy also has an automotive program, the principal said, and will likely add a culinary track in the future.

Saturday's ceremony was all about the graduates, as Spencer pointed out in his closing address before the graduates took a curtain call, accepted a final standing ovation from the crowd and threw their mortar boards in the air.

Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach and El Paso County Commissioner Dennis Hisey were among the evening's speakers, honoring the students' triumphant return to the classroom.

"Thank you for letting me share in this very special day for you," Hisey said.

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