Editor's note: The Gazette's photos from 2018 graduation ceremonies are available to purchase here.
Last week, six graduates gave speeches congratulating each other and thanking staff with individualized compliments — moving some of their family and friends to tears.
The June 6 ceremony marked the students’ completion of the Students of Transition Age Acquiring Relevant Skills, or STAARS, program, which trains students with special needs who have met high school academic requirements in life skills such as personal finance, social skills and career readiness.
Students are referred to the Hastings Public Schools program by teachers who work with them. Once they meet their goals as determined with their individualized education program or IEP team, they receive their high school diploma and graduate from the STAARS, said Dave Haveman, director of special services for Hastings Public Schools.
While students may fulfill their plan in any amount of time, most take the maximum of three years, Haveman said.
Since Hastings started the program in 2013, this year’s class was the largest yet, up from three last year and two the prior two years, Haveman said.
Before Hastings started STAARs, area students attended a similar program with the district’s partner, Intermediate District 917. Today, the default is for students to attend Hastings’ STAAR, unless the 917 program better meets their needs.
“Between the classroom work that the students do and the community work we expect them to be involved in, I really think we can do a lot of work right here,” Haveman said.
Haveman said that the Hastings community has increased its opportunities for students to get work experience at local businesses and organizations.
“It’s not so much that we care about a paid job necessarily,” he said, “but it’s more there for the experience piece … So they can learn what’s going to come after high school for them.”
Aside from working in the community, students also practice skills such as personal finance and social interactions in classes.
For example, they may go over how to check a pay stub for errors and what to do in the event that it is incorrect, Haveman said.
This year’s class had a couple of “first” accomplishments, including voting in a presidential election, obtaining a driver’s license and attending college courses, teacher Cami Williams said at the ceremony.
She said she had taught some of them for several years.
“One thing that is not unique to just this graduating class is laughing and having fun,” she said before speaking about each graduate individually.
Graduates shared favorite memories and gave accolades to each of their peers.
Because several of the students have been working on their social and communication skills in the program, the speeches tie into the ceremony nicely while also making it more personal, Haveman said.
“What I witness every year is that it’s always kind of heartening, they obviously have a connection to their peers,” he said. “You also get a chance to get to know each one of the students, their classmates, their families in the process. So it’s a lot more intimate.”
Afterwards, Williams opened the floor to audience members. Katy Lindberg, who was there providing cookies on behalf of Farmers Insurance and has a middle school-aged son with special needs, said she was so touched by the ceremony that she decided to give a few words.
“I couldn’t have imagined how wonderful it would be to meet you all,” Lindberg said. “Your lifelong friendships are inspiring.”
Superintendent Tim Collins gave a short speech before awarding the diplomas.
“I love this graduation just as much as I do Friday’s (Hastings High School graduation),” Collins said. “To feel the love in this room is very special.”