Secretary of State Colin L. Powell shook the hand of each graduate of Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy yesterday as members of the Class of 2004 mounted the stage of the historic Lincoln Theatre in Northwest Washington at the start of their ceremony.

The retired four-star general clapped the shoulders of the nine boys, who wore black caps and gowns. The 20 girls, wearing red, each got a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

Powell recalled the uncertainty he and his classmates faced when they graduated from high school in the Bronx about five decades ago. The Korean War was ending but the cold war still loomed, he said. Being drafted was a certainty. Everyone worried about nuclear war.

"Here it is, 50 years later, and we still find ourselves in conflict," Powell said. He implored the graduates -- two-thirds of them poor, many of them immigrants or first-generation Americans, almost all them Latino or African American -- to succeed but also to remember their modest roots.

"Never forget to reach down and reach across and lift someone else up," said Powell, also the son of immigrants.

In their own remarks, student leaders said the five-year-old charter school had been their life raft, giving them a strong college preparatory education that includes extended class days, independent study and internships, lots of attention from teachers and a required senior thesis.

Yesterday was Chavez's third graduation ceremony. As with those in the past two classes, every graduate has been accepted to college and all plan to go -- though school officials said two or three members of the Class of 2004 might not start right away.

Valedictorian Kasmin Holt, who is headed to Smith College, received an award presented by the school's first valedictorian, Francesca Moquete, a student at Brown University. Salutatorian Jin Lee Parada, who will attend Bates College, accepted an award presented by Dawit Getachew, last year's valedictorian, fresh from his first year at Columbia University.

Chavez is among about three dozen charter schools in the city that are publicly funded but operate independently of the D.C. school system. The 250-student school meets in cramped quarters in a former laundry building in the Shaw neighborhood.

Those who walked across the stage yesterday, to exuberant cheers from their families and teachers, were the triumphant survivors of a class that 31/2 years ago was almost three times as big.

Of the 79 students who entered Chavez as freshmen in September 2000, school officials said, about two dozen repeated one or two grades and are still underclassmen. An additional two dozen or so students left the school.

Holt spoke from the podium about the challenges she and her classmates had faced, from cultural and ethnic barriers to the deaths of family members to the crushing responsibility of teenage pregnancy and parenthood.

"Overcoming these obstacles is what makes us so special," Holt said. "Because we did not allow them to hinder our progress or limit our goals."

Powell left the ceremony early, before each student's name and college plans were announced. He did not get to hear the titles of the senior theses they had written -- including one exploring whether and how U.S. troops could be withdrawn from Iraq, another on the importance of stem cell research and two on effective ways to fight the AIDS epidemic.

Earlier, he told the students not to let themselves be labeled by the statistics -- about race, poverty or English proficiency -- listed in promotional materials about their school. There's only one statistic that matters, Powell said. "And that's that 100 percent of you are going to college."

At the Lincoln Theatre, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell prepares to congratulate valedictorian Kasmin Holt.