Older grads cherish new diplomas

June 18, 1997


Staff Writer

A 71-year-old retired businessman was the student commencement speaker and nearly one-tenth of the class was over age 50 at Wednesday night's 15th Annual Recognition Ceremony for students who earned high school diplomas outside of the traditional classroom.

Fifty-two of the seventy-nine 1997 graduates of the Washington County Board of Education's Adult Education Program were present for the ceremony.

Delegate Bruce Poole, D-Washington, called the commencement "probably the most important event for education in Washington County" because of the determination and progress that it represented.


"Getting my high school diploma is something I always wanted," said James Copoulos, of Keedysville, one of four student commencement speakers. He obtained his diploma through the GED program, one of three ways the students earned their diplomas.

The GED exam is a "7 1/2-hour long ordeal" that tests students on subjects like science, English literature, social studies and math, said Ralph Galvin, a program specialist for the Maryland Department of Education.

Students also had the options of attending the Evening High School to earn necessary classroom credits or of participating in the External Diploma Program to master specific skills and trades.

Copoulos, who dropped out of high school in 1939 to take care of his family, took the test last July and received his diploma Wednesday - two days before he turned 72.

"Never in my life have I been more proud than I am at this moment," Copoulos told about 400 audience members.

The GED program was so rigorous that Doris Rager, 45, of Hagerstown, had to ask her sons, ages 26 and 29, for help with schoolwork, she said.

Rager had left high school when she married at 15 and sought the Adult Education Program after she lost her job at Kmart.

"When I got the ax, I felt pretty low about myself," she said. "I just felt like this was something I needed to do for myself."

Penelope Bartles had given 25 years to the work force and to her family until last September, when she said it was time to do something for herself.

Bartles, 44, of Halfway, was only one credit shy of graduating when she left high school to marry a military man stationed in Germany.

"I think you get to that stage when you turn 40 when you just want to learn as many different things as possible," she said.

Other graduates were as young as 17, including about three previous dropouts, 13 young parents and 18-year-old Melanie Gearhart, who chose the evening school because she couldn't adjust to the public school environment.

"It would have been easy for her to drop out and not even finish high school, but she was determined to get her diploma," said her mother, Wanda Gearhart. "I'm very proud of her. She beat the odds."

Gearhart and Jessica Stine, 21, a legally blind Washington County Job Development Center graduate, were recognized for academic excellence.

"This means that it's never too late" to earn a high school diploma, Copoulos said.

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