Southern graduates get a taste of success

Parents, educators savor results after a year's hard work

June 05, 1999|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

Even amid chaos, there can be normality. And even the most dour and stressful school year can end on a note of hope and celebration.

Last night at Southern High School, 156 seniors walked across the auditorium stage, picked up their hard-earned diplomas and became graduates of the often troubled southern Baltimore school.

There wasn't an inkling that this was a school that grabbed headlines this year for its assortment of fires, "lock-down" drills and neighborhood turf battles fought inside the building.

On display were all of the traditional rites of spring commencement: weepy parents and grinning teen-agers; video cameras recording and flashing bulbs; speeches about the future, deep emotions and tossed graduation caps.

The ceremony offered proof that despite the problems that dog most of the city's high schools, some children persevere, survive and even excel.

"People always say our graduations take so long because we hug all of our kids as they walk across the stage," said Principal Darline Lyles, wiping tears from her face after the ceremony. "But we hug each kid because there's a story with each kid, and we all know what those stories are. This is always very emotional."

For Lyles, the end of this school year also ends one of the most difficult challenges of her five-year tenure. When the school spun out of control last fall, she assumed responsibility for restoring order.

By spring, her success was evident in clean hallways and more respectful students.

It was also on display last night, as she bid farewell to this year's seniors, the largest graduating class since she arrived in 1994; about half of the graduates have been accepted by colleges such as Towson University, Morgan State University, Coppin State College and Baltimore City Community College.

"With some of these children, we were working right up until Thursday night, making sure they passed the functionals and passed all their classes," Lyles said. "And we've got some children who are graduating even though they're parents of one or more children themselves now. It's pretty remarkable."

Joyce Agresott, one of the Southern High parents most critical of Lyles and the school earlier this year, now believes the school has been good for her daughter, Estrellita, who was among last night's graduates and will attend the Community College of Baltimore County's Catonsville campus in the fall.

"She hated it for so long and we had all of those problems, but look at it now," Agresott said. "We came a long way, from when my daughter didn't even want to come to school."

Before the ceremony started, Agresott shared a few words and a quick hug with Lyles.

"We've always had the same goals in mind," Agresott said.

Tyree Thomas -- who plans to join the Marines in September -- was still in shock on the front steps of the school 15 minutes after the ceremony ended.

"I can't believe I'm finally here," he said with a wide grin. "I kept thinking at the last minute I'd fail a class and not graduate. But I did it."

Theodora George wasn't sure her grandson, Malik Oliver, would get to graduation.

"It has been a hard road, but a good one," she said. "I had to be his mother, his father and his grandmother, and sometimes he made me worry."

Oliver, a star on Southern's basketball team, continued in school despite fathering a daughter a year ago.

George said her grandson has completed a "responsible fatherhood" program and is very involved in his daughter's life. He could be seen bouncing his baby after the ceremony, a proud father in his cap and gown.

"I trusted in God, and he always delivers," said George. "Always."

Pub Date: 6/05/99

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