GREENFIELD — Principal Steve Bryant shook their hands, patted their backs and offered some a warm embrace. Then, to each student he whispered, “We’re so proud of you.”

The Academy at Greenfield-Central, the district’s new alternative school, celebrated its inaugural graduating class Thursday night, honoring 18 students who will graduate June 3 alongside the Class of 2017 despite obstacles that stood in their way.

The Academy opened its doors this year to students who administrators determined needed a flexible schedule or an alternative way to attend school in order to graduate. Supporters hope the program helps more students complete the requirements for earning a high school degree, which educators says is more important now than ever before.

Thursday night, family members and friends filed into the small school, formerly a church, situated next to Greenfield-Central High School to celebrate student successes. They came bearing video cameras and flowers, and as each student’s name was called, they cheered.

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Getting here hasn’t been easy.

As he reflected on the year and his students’ accomplishments, director Nathan Bruck choked up. Administrators, teachers and parents all contributed to the successful year, but nobody worked harder than the 18 young men and women seated in the front row, he said.

“I would like to say it’s been easy, but it hasn’t,” he said. “These guys, they’ve fought through innumerable adversities and overcome trials of all kinds.”

They battled illness, personal and family issues; yet through it all, they persevered.

This year, the graduating class spent nearly 4,700 hours online, earning 147 credits, not including those earned at the Walker Career Center, which partners with Greenfield-Central to offer trade classes to students, or the high school, Bruck said.

Beyond tackling school work, the students also volunteered, completing more than 275 hours of community service as part of The Academy’s programming.

All year, Jeannie Roberts, volunteer engagement coordinator for United Way of Central Indiana, helped plan community service events for students to complete on Fridays. Since August, students have donated time to various Hancock County nonprofits, including the Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen, Greenfield-Hancock Animal Management, The Hope House and Hancock County Senior Services.

The community service aspect of The Academy’s program aims to teach students about skills they’ll need when they pursue careers: punctuality, following instructions, communication, teamwork and work ethic.

But it teaches them to give their time and hearts, too, said Roberts, who was named an honorary member of the graduating class.

“You have worked so hard to get where you are tonight,” she told the students she spent hours working alongside. “I really am so proud of you.”

The Academy targets students who struggle to succeed in a traditional classroom setting by helping students get past the obstacles standing in their way of graduating. Students enrolled in the program attend school for just a few hours a day, completing online courses at their own pace. The class size is small, offering one-on-one help to those who need it, and with a flexible schedule, students are able to work, attend doctor’s appointments if they’re fighting an illness or help out at home if a family situation makes a full school day difficult.

For many, the academy offers the extra help and encouragement they need to graduate.

Student Catherine Hoffman said throughout school, she often found herself in trouble — sent to the hall, or worse, the principal’s office — for speaking out in class.

But at The Academy, she found staff who listened, teachers who let her speak her mind, Hoffman said. They opened their ears and listened to her, no matter what she had to say, she said.

She’s learned it’s important to speak up and to ask questions, lessons more important than those students are often tested on, she said.

“The Academy has taught me that life is not high school, that life is not homework and concrete schedules,” Hoffman said. “The Academy has taught me that life is dynamic and unpredictable, and … there’s nothing in the world as simple as it seems.”

It’s hard for educators to know how many of the students honored Thursday would have dropped out or fallen behind without The Academy, said Superintendent Harold Olin. But he knows had the alternative school not opened, at least a few of those students wouldn’t be turning their tassels next week.

“That makes this worthwhile,” he said.

At a glance

Eighteen students make up The Academy at Greenfield-Central’s inaugural graduating class. The alternative school opened this year to serve students who struggle to succeed in traditional classroom settings.

Those joining the Class of 2017 are:

Blake Benedict

Brandon Blackwell

Matthew Bright

Kylor Dalton

Grant Elsbury

Brianna Glaze

Jeffery Grayfox

Catherine Hoffman

Courtney Jenkins

Emma McCorkle

Keagan Mendoza

Codey Miller

Payton Osborne

Alisha Prior

Cory Reeves

Michael Trusty

Kyle Wadman

Nicholas Wertenberger

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Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.