Cameras clicking, relatives cheering, processional music droning in the background. The awards ceremony at Dunbar High School last week had all the sentimental trappings and confusion of a high school graduation.
But the honorees ranged in age from 16 to 60 and were all high school dropouts who dropped back in as part of a program offered by the D.C. Adult Education Demonstration Center (AEDC).
"They'll be no holding me back now," said graduate Margeart Fogle, 32, of 415 Atlantic St. SE. She takes her high school equivalency exam later this month, and if she passes, she said, she has been assured of a better position by her current employer, the U.S. Treasury Department.
Fogle left high school as a junior. Last year her bosses encouraged her to go back, so she enrolled with AEDC. She was allowed to leave the office every morning from 9 to 11 to attend classes. It was a wise move, she now says.
"When I was younger, I just didn't take an interest in school," she said. "Now that I'm older, my mind can accept so many new things."
Fogle was one of 5,000 students enrolled at AEDC this past year. Many of the students are black and poor. But most believe that by their own hard work they can make a better life for themselves.
For many, the adult education classes are a route to a high school diploma or a job promotion. For others, the center teaches needed job skills such as shorthand or typing. And for some. like Judith Jones, 29, of 603 24th St. NE, the classes provide the academic background required for vocational work.
In Jones' case, the work is plumbing. A high school dropout at age 16, she went to AEDC a year ago as a plumber's apprentice to meet the educational requirements of the plumbers' union. Last week she was accepted into the union, her new career is just beginning.
The adult education program has many such success stories. Delia G. Pailen, acting director of AEDC, estimated that more than 15,000 District residents have enrolled in the program during its nine-year existence. And she said the results have been satisfying.
More than 2,000 students employed as a direct result of center training.
More than 100 students now in colleges and universities.
More that 400 students who have passed the federal Civil Service Examination.
A dropout rate of only 30 per cent.
The center, located in the Franklin Building at 13th and K streets NW, opened in 1968 with an $800,000 grant from the U.S. Office of Education. When the federal funding well ran dry in 1971, the center had to struggle through a few very lean years with limited support coming from the Model Cities program.
Down but not out, AEDC staffers and students took their case to city hall with a mix of public protests and behind-the-scenes lobbying. The appeal worked. In 1974, the center was incorporated into the District's regular public school budget.
At last week's awards ceremony, there was a lot of talk about pride and self-improvement. Among the speakers were Mayor Walter E. Washington and George Haley, a D.C. attorney and brother of "Roots" author Alex Haley.
Then came the awards presentation to 750 students amid tears and squeals of delight.
The crowd broke into thunderous applause when David L. Washington, 43, of 4000 Kansas Ave. NW, walked across the stage to receive his award. Washington, a former truck driver, had been paralyzed from the waist down following an accident in 1972. He was able to walk with a cane after 11 months of hospital rehabilitation, but he had no concrete plans.
"I knew I'd have to do something when I got out of the hospital," Washington said. "And I didn't have a high school education."
He went to AEDC. After four years as a full-time student at the center, he passed his high school equivalency exam and now plans to go into computer training. "It wasn't easy, but I'm glad I went back," Washington said.