The graduates arrive early: The girls wear sleek dresses, hair primped, cheeks pink with rouge. The boys show off fresh buzz cuts and smooth faces. Some even wear ties.
They laugh excitedly and joke and play around as they don royal blue caps and gowns and get into place.
Before long, friends and relatives arrive, carrying balloons, lei and roses, quickly filling the auditorium Thursday at Ala Moana Beach Park’s McCoy Pavilion.
From afar, this looks like any other high school graduation: happy young people, elated families, futures full of hope and possibility.
And that’s all true.
But these are no ordinary graduates. In this class of 100, about 20 are homeless. At least half have run into trouble with the law. Forty percent have learning disabilities. Nearly two dozen are young mothers or fathers.
And all of them dropped out or were kicked out of public schools. Some never even made it to ninth grade.
The graduates, participants in Honolulu Community Action Program’s alternative high school diploma program, are some of the faces behind the 15 percent dropout rate at Hawaii public schools.
"We deal with a lot of behavior issues. A lot of special ed. Some are mandated here by their probation officer or drug court," said Krystal Ikeda, youth services program coordinator at HCAP, which started up its alternative diploma program a decade ago with 12 students. "We’re definitely not a traditional high school."
In this year’s graduating class at HCAP, many have a sibling, a cousin or a friend who also attended the program.
Michelle Comesario, who dropped out of Central Middle School when she was in the eighth grade (at just 13 years old), was urged to enroll by a friend.
She said she dropped out of school because she was lazy and bored, and spent five years not doing much of anything but staying home and baby-sitting to make a little cash. She went into the HCAP program when she was 18.
"I decided to turn my life around," said Comesario.
Now at 19, Comesario can say she has a high school diploma. She plans to go to Leeward Community College, where she’ll study to become a chef.
Honolulu Community Action Program is one of several nonprofits statewide that help students secure a GED or a competency-based diploma.
The agencies get student referrals from the city’s Workforce Investment Act Youth Program, which aims to help economically disadvantaged youth, ages 14 to 21, who have barriers to employment.
In the past five years, the program has helped about 1,535 young people. Of those, 80 percent earned a high school diploma and 15 percent went on to college.
Ikeda, of HCAP, said many of her students need intensive tutoring before they’re able to start taking the tests they need for a diploma. Some come into the program on a fourth- or fifth-grade reading or math level.
"Our vision and mission for the program is to service those who need a second chance," Ikeda said.
That’s what Steven Budiao got when he showed up at the program two years ago. Budiao, now 19 and a soon-to-be dad, is in this year’s graduating class.
His girlfriend, 17-year-old Kristelle Baldillo, is six months pregnant and is also enrolled in an alternative diploma program.
Budiao dropped out of school at 14 and started at HCAP after realizing he couldn’t get very far without a diploma.
"It’s one part of my life that I accomplished," said Budiao, sitting in the auditorium at McCoy, clasping his girlfriend’s hand. "It’s the first step."