Norwich - The 15 Thames River Academy graduates heard the usual commencement words of advice and encouragement Wednesday, and they made the expected comments: They were both sad and excited to be graduating.
Some had tears in their eyes. They thanked their parents, friends, teachers and other supporters.
But there was more to say. As the final class to graduate from Thames River Academy, which will close this month, they wanted the Norwich community and the world beyond to know that they will amount to something.
"We're not the most accepted people," graduate Celina LaMonda, 18, said. "Hopefully, everyone is smiling at us today. I hope to show everyone that everyone here is going to do something great."
The city's alternative high school has had a rough final year, Superintendent Abby Dolliver acknowledged. In February, beloved Principal Edward Derr was placed on administrative leave and later resigned after a state-funded program audit was highly critical of his leadership and the entire operations of the school.
Faced with the need to pump more money and staffing into the program, the Board of Education voted Tuesday to close the school and join a new transitional program at Norwich Free Academy.
"This has not been an easy year," Dolliver said. "There were criticisms and disappointments, and there were celebrations and wonderful moments like tonight. I know that change and transitions are difficult, but you all came through it all, and with flying colors."
Derr visited the graduates prior to Wednesday's ceremony, providing an emotional moment before they took the stage.
"Mr. Derr was just a big part of everyone's lives," Lamonda said. "This is all for him. These gowns, these tassels."
Class speaker Hannah Brosofske called Derr her hero. The audience of about 70 people applauded and caused her to pause as she thanked Derr for her own success.
"He would help anyone who asked," she said. "He was a great principal and a friend."
Carey Sikorski, mother of graduate Justin Delorge, couldn't stop her tears from flowing. "I'm so proud of him," she said repeatedly, hugging friends and school staff.
Delorge, who hopes to join the U.S. Marine Corps, received the Faculty Recognition Award for outstanding character and citizenship during the graduation ceremony. Teacher Regina Markovitz said Delorge participated in school community service projects, including the Empty Bowls fundraiser, and helped both teachers and students selflessly.