A group of happy students graduated from a course at Prince George's

In Community Room A on a makeshift stage, the 17 students, some young, some old, dressed in royal blue academic gowns and mortarboards, were handed Graduate Equivalency Diplomas. There was giggling, singing and praying as the long-awaited high school graduation took place.

But the ceremony marked the end of a program that was funded under the Comprehensive Employment Training Act. The funding cutoff is part of severe cutbacks in the federal CETA program nationwide. These students were the last of 1,147 graduates of the CETA-sponsored GED courses offered by the college since 1975. The program is closing down and no similar, full-time classes are offered to prepare students for GED exams.

Isabelle Ray, who graduated last week, left school in 10th grade in Farmville, Va., nearly 20 years ago. She raised a family and worked as a housekeeper and a restaurant cook. Now she is a high school graduate.

"I want to apply for so many jobs," she said. "That's what inspired me."

Her sister-in-law, Sheila Smith, came to watch Ray receive the diploma. Smith graduated from the program in the October 1979 class. She left school after 11th grade, had children and worked 10 years for the post office.

But after receiving her GED, she went to the Control Data Institute in Arlington and now she is a computer operator for NASA.

"I'm much happier at my work," she said. "There are better hours. . . . I have more education and more opportunity to try something new if I want. It's a completely wonderful program. I'm sad to see it end."

Sheila Brown, the valedictorian of the October class, spoke at last week's ceremony. "There is sadness among us," she told the graduates. Donna Adams, valedictorian of the September class, thanked the CETA program and told the audience the program gave her a good job (with the American Public Welfare Association). "The program has helped us fulfill our dreams," she said.

"This is the biggest step in my life," said Hazel Richmond when the ceremony was finished. "I have always wanted it." She began her GED courses early this year, attending classes five hours a day, five days a week, to add to the little education she received more than 30 years ago, when she was a girl back in North Carolina.

Her father worked on a tobacco farm, she said, and there was too much work to do. She left school when she was in ninth grade and started picking tobacco; then she started a family. Until she learned of the CETA-sponsored program she never dreamed she could return to school, she said.

Yet there she was, at the age of 47, leaving each day for school with her daughter Sharon, who is in the 11th grade. Hazel Richmond's studies were interrupted by a thyroid operation. "But I came back and now I intend to go into nursing or some other program," she said.

William Hyman, associate dean of the College of Life Sciences at the University of the District of Columbia, was the guest speaker at the first GED graduation ceremony at the Prince George's college in 1975. Last Friday he came back to congratulate the last graduates and bid the program farewell.

He described himself as a "great supporter" of the GED program.

"It's regrettable that this is the last class," he told the graduates. But "it will certainly rise again," he added. "Services like these cannot be delayed or eliminated for long."

Three GED teaching centers were operated by the college when the CETA program began -- in Riverdale, Seat Pleasant and at Andrews Air Force Base. When the first budget cuts were made last April, the programs were merged at the Seat Pleasant center.

"The wolf is no longer at the door," program supervisor Molly Havenstein told the students. "He is romping and stomping inside."

But Hyman was more optimistic. "I hope you call me back again," he said before he left. "Not for a different program. But for this program."