BRATTLEBORO -- For the last time ever, Peter vanWageningen helped a group of students to a major checkpoint on the road to success.
The Community High School of Vermont (CHSVT) correctional educator, who has been with the program since 2004 and is set to retire at the end of June, watched with pride Tuesday as six more young people received their high school diplomas after overcoming various hardships. The ceremony was held at the Brattleboro VFW.
CHSVT is operated by the Vermont Department of Corrections. It is a fully-accredited high school through the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), with many of its students under the custody of the Vermont DOC.
vanWageningen stood beside Joseph Michael Butts, Charles Robert Cassell, Brandy Lynn Jordan, Tiffany Palmer, Brian Powers and Cody Allen Ritchie and announced them each by name as they officially completed their high school education. Though he has been through the experiences numerous times before, vanWageningen said he never tires of seeing students turn their lives around and graduate.
"We have a lot of graduations and it's always nice to have new grads -- and congratulations to all of you," he told the young people before explaining to the audience how CHSVT prepares its students for the real world. "You learn what you need to do when you graduate, to follow your dreams and to become productive members of your community.
Each student read aloud a copy of the letters they wrote to Gov. Peter Shumlin, a tradition of CHSVT graduations.
Butts said he got into trouble in his younger days and he soon learned the importance of education, freedom and being law-abiding. He thanked the staff of CHSVT for putting him on the right track.
"I also want to thank the state of Vermont for giving me the opportunity to go back to school," he read. "The Community High School of Vermont is really an amazing school with great peers, and now I have the chance to go to college, like I've always wanted to do."
He mentioned that he wants to attend a culinary school.
Cassell said he was active in school sports until he "got in with the wrong crowd" and learned "if you lay down with big dogs, you wake up with big fleas."
He said he moved out of his mother's house when he was 13 or 14 years old and had his first child at 16. He said he now sees a better future for himself.
Fighting back tears, he thanked his probation officer, Steve Walker, and promised him he would not let him down.
"I'm going to be the best I can be and use my education for the best," he said before taking his seat near the other graduates.
Jordan said she attended Bellows Falls Union High School, but failed to graduate with her peers. She got involved with CHSVT because she wanted to lead by example for her daughter and teach her the importance of education. Palmer said she had been pulled out of the Brattleboro school system years ago because her mother didn't like the path she was on with her boyfriend. She spent some time living in the Bronx and thanked her loved ones for all their support.
Powers and Ritchie commended CHSVT and said they hope to use their education to open their own businesses some day.
When vanWageningen asked if members of the audience would like to say something, Probation Officer Walker took the podium to congratulate the graduates, some of whom he had worked with.
"I'm proud of all you guys," he said. "This is a big moment, seriously, for all of you."
Windham County Sen. Jeanette White, a Putney Democrat, said she wished the other 179 members of the Vermont Legislature had attended the ceremony to hear the graduates' stories.
"We cut, I think, $400,000 out of your program this year and there was a possibility of cutting all the ‘street' sites and we've managed to save Brattleboro but it will not be as it is now," she said from the audience.
There will be a reprioritization of services based on the needs of students, an examination of the duplication of services and a restructuring of facilities based on safety and security needs as outlined by the National Institute of Corrections. Street campuses also will have defined times of operation, instead of being open 12 hours a day.
CHSVT will also provide educational services to incarcerated individuals and those transitioning back into their communities and respond to individual risk factors with best practices that are based on evidence.
Before vanWageningen and fellow correctional educator Tod Lessard handed the graduates their diplomas, Danielle Southwell of Youth Services stood up to thank vanWageningen for his years of service. She said many of the clients at Youth Services -- which coordinates programs for people ages 16 to 21 that are experiencing difficult times -- have graduated from CHSVT.
"Their lives have literally been transformed for the better. This could not happen without the amazing teachers who are there," she said. "When I heard that Peter was thinking about retiring, my heart sank, as he is a tremendous part of what makes community high school so awesome. For those of you that aren't familiar with him, he has a fabulous sense of humor and a quick wit and he is also so patient and kind.
"Peter, you will be dearly missed by so many and your retirement, while well-deserved, will lead to a tremendous loss to the community," she added, her voice quivering. "I will miss, I love you, but I wish you all the best."
After the ceremony, vanWageningen told the Reformer it was gratifying to hear everyone's kind words, as embarrassing as it was for him. He said he didn't want to take any attention any from the graduates, as it was their day. Nevertheless, he said it is time to retire.
"My bicycle is waiting," he said with a smile.
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.