Philomath Academy graduates celebrate at the end of Friday night's ceremony while confetti shoots into the air. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath Academy Principal Dan Johnson is almost never at a loss for words. But during a short talk following Friday night’s first-ever graduation ceremony, the man had trouble expressing how important the evening had been for the program that he’s worked so hard to establish and for the 20 graduates who beat the odds to earn diplomas.

“The pride, the adversities the students have gone through,” Johnson said. “We’ve worked, we’ve had kids who were in huge credit deficits that we just worked to get through.”

Twenty Philomath Academy students earned their diplomas on Friday and seven others that overcame significant credit deficiencies will walk in the high school graduation on Saturday.

“This ceremony is amazing but just the process of having everybody get to the finish line is just astronomical,” Johnson said.

The 20-minute ceremony included the awarding of diplomas to 17 of the 20 graduates who were in attendance. One of those reaching the accomplishment was Sophian Meyner, one of two students who spoke during the ceremony.

Graduate Sophian Meyner gives a student address. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

“COVID brought up a lot of challenges academically … one of them was distance learning,” Meyner said. “I personally struggled and I’m sure many of my peers did also. But with the help of Philomath Academy’s faculty, I was able to work toward the credits I needed to make it to graduation — to this exact moment.”

The school that provides an alternative to the typical high school setting fills a need, Johnson said.

“We’re looking at who and how do we serve, you know, there’s a lot of students that just have different needs,” he said. “So you have to find what those are.”

In comparison to traditional classrooms, Philomath Academy provides a more intimate connection that can vault students toward the finish line that is graduation.

“When I was in the classroom (in traditional high school), it was mass prepare, mass distribute, mass assess,” Johnson said. “Here, we get masses but we have to micro assess and then address the needs and difficulties to fill gaps to help them move forward.”

Johnson believes society today is more accepting of a virtual curriculum.

“We can truly address the needs of the kids that come in,” he said. “If I come in as a student and I’m struggling in algebra, we’re going to make sure that you find a way to understand algebra. … I’m lucky, I have a really great group of adults that care about the kids in school.”

Philomath Academy Principal Dan Johnson speaks during the school’s inaugural independent graduation ceremony. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath Academy, which is in its second year, will be moving this next academic year from the high school library to the district office, which is situated on Applegate Street in front of the elementary school.

“We can have our own space … it allows us to meet some needs of students who for whatever reason, have a hard time being in a (high school) building,” Johnson said, and then joked, “My goal before I retire is to have the building and have the district office in a nice, luxury condo somewhere.”

To start, the academy will take over the conference room where School Board meetings are currently held along with a computer lab toward the back of the building.

Philomath Academy graduates enter the auditorium during the processional. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The ceremony started with students entering the PHS auditorium to “Pomp and Circumstance.” Following the national anthem, math teacher Rob Zarfas made a few welcoming remarks that led into Meyner’s student comments.

Language arts teacher Daniel Mikula, who had a graduation in his own family to attend and couldn’t be there, wrote comments that were read aloud by counselor Beth Edgemon as a lead-in to the next student presentation. Gavin Ivanovich then read a poem he composed and had been submitted to a youth poetry contest.

Johnson shared his thoughts in a principal’s address and Superintendent Susan Halliday followed with the presentation of the class. Graduates were called up one by one by Edgemon and Marina Castilla and four School Board members — Joe Dealy, Erin Gudge, Karen Skinkis and Rick Wells — were there to distribute diplomas.

Graduate Gavin Ivanovitch reads a poem that he wrote as part of the ceremony. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Johnson led the students through the turning of tassels as confetti shot into the air. Afterward, cake was served.

As for the importance of the evening from a graduate’s perspective, Meyner might’ve put it best.

“For me, this graduation is the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “It only gets better and brighter from here.”

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.