Anthony Scott raised his diploma in a universal gesture of victory and strode off the stage, to sustained cheers. Lisa Tseronis hugged Principal Donald Weinberger and practically skipped away. Maria Carroll looked like she wanted to do wheelies in her wheelchair.
Yesterday the 18 graduates of Rock Terrace High School, Montgomery County's facility for mildly retarded and learning-disabled students with multiple handicaps, were welcomed to the future.
More than 8,000 public high school students are graduating in Montgomery County this week and next, but few have overcome more obstacles than Rock Terrace's alumni. Blindness, deafness, impaired motor coordination, speech impediments and other physical problems compound the handicaps of the school's special students.
This graduation, the first among county schools, marked the end of a decadelong experience for some at Rock Terrace, which takes youngsters at age 12 and usually graduates them at age 20 or 21, following an unusual curriculum that emphasizes jobs and responsibilities for the handicapped, in addition to conventional academic subjects.
"We are on our way to a new life," graduate Michael McNiff announced to his classmates.
Whether that new life will include relatively independent living is another matter, parents said later. Montgomery County has only a few group homes and shared living arrangements for the mentally handicapped, and the waiting list for placement is enormous, especially for young people who have living parents and can remain at home, the family members said.
In their years at Rock Terrace, students have learned how to stuff mailing tubes, wash cars, repair furniture, prepare meals, wash laundry and perform other tasks they hope to turn into marketable skills.
Parents said they've seen their children acquire other skills for coping with life's demands -- making change, making conversation, getting from one place to another by public transportation and assuming responsibility. And so, in the nest-leaving yesterday, emotions were running high. Flashbulbs began to pop and mothers, grandmothers and teachers hauled out handkerchiefs at the first strains of "Tomorrow," as the line of maroon-clad graduates marched into the crowded gym. On hand were representatives of Bethesda Naval Hospital and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, federal installations that have provided the students jobs in food service, clerical and other fields over the years.
"This group," Principal Weinberger said, "is more prepared than any other in the school's history" to enter the work force. All but two had been employed outside the school, he said.
Said graduation speaker Michael McNiff to his classmates: "We're on our way to a new life."
Whether that life will include relatively independent living is another matter, parents said later. Montgomery County has only a handful of group homes and shared living arrangements for the mentally handicapped; the waiting list for placement, especially where young people have parents nearby, is enormous, family members said.
Several graduates are being kept on at the naval hospital as permanent employes, according to Aley Ruffin, their food services supervisor. About two dozen Rock Terrace graduates are on the permanent payroll now, as food preparation workers, tray assemblers, aides in the wards and as landscaping workers, he said. As student workers, they received the minimum wage, $3.35 an hour, but as permanent employes, they start at $6.81, he said.
"They know the job and they are reliable," Ruffin said. "You have to be patient with them; there are some rough spots and some good spots."
But "they are eager to learn, they pick up things and are willing to advance to other things," he said. One student, Collin Robinson, advanced to a food service dispatcher job simply by watching how it was done, he said.
School placement counselors are helping graduates who are not kept on at the military facility find work in sheltered workshops for the mentally handicapped and elsewhere in the community, Weinberger said.
"You're the best kind of example of what we're trying to do in the government," C. Boyden Gray, a counselor to Vice President Bush, told the graduates yesterday. "We now know what the disabled want -- it's what the able-bodied want: independence, opportunity . . . community, a chance to prove him or herself.
" . . . You're setting an example . . . that is absolutely invaluable."