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    Joshua Salomon, left, William Kostka Jr., Brittney Matsumoto and Harley Van Natta are graduating this year from the Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind.

Over the next two weeks, thousands will crowd into auditoriums, stadiums and arenas to watch public and private school seniors of the class of 2011 accept their high school diplomas.

The ceremonies will range from the massive — like the one planned for 573 students set to graduate from Campbell High School — to the tiny, like the one for 50 seniors graduating from Lanai High.

And a few will be a bit more than commencement exercises. During the celebration at the Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind, the ceremony is less about students walking across a stage and more about a close-knit community coming together to reconnect and celebrate at the campus near Kapiolani Park.

This year the school’s graduating class is one of the smallest in the state, with just four students (less than half the size of last year’s class), but 200 to 300 people are expected to see them receive their diplomas.

Graduations at the campus are never just about relatives gathering to pile lei on smiling grads, Principal Sydney Dickerson said. The events are a chance for Hawaii’s deaf community (most of the students are deaf or hearing-impaired) to congregate for a great party, a place for HSDB alumni to hold an impromptu reunion.

"It brings the deaf community together," Dickerson said. "A lot of the attendees are not related to the current graduates. A lot of them will be alumni, even former staff who have retired or moved on."

Graduating senior William Kostka Jr., who will attend Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., in the fall, said in sign language that HSDB helped him learn to overcome barriers and operate in a hearing world.

"So many times, deaf people are told that they can’t do things," he said through an interpreter. "I’ve learned from here that we can do things, that deafness is not a limitation."

Kostka and his three classmates are among about 11,000 public school students who are graduating this year. About 3,000 private school seniors are also expected to receive diplomas.

If recent trends hold, about half of the public school students will go on to college. The rest will move into a job market still recovering from the recession.

High school counselors say they are seeing more seniors this year worrying about how they’ll cover the cost of college. Many seniors are also seriously considering community college — a more affordable option to get core college courses out of the way.

"THIS YEAR the cost of college on the mainland is out of reach for a lot of kids," said Regan Honda, college and career counselor at Farrington High School, whose senior class has 547 students this year. "We had a bunch of kids who got accepted to good schools on the mainland, but the cost was too much."

Those opting to head straight into the work force are fretting over what opportunities will be available.

The same tough realities face the four graduating seniors at Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind, school counselor Danielle Thompson said. Add to that the barriers that people with disabilities must overcome every day, she said.

Still, Thompson is optimistic about this year’s group, one of the smallest graduating classes HSDB has had in years.

The school, with 77 students who come from around the state in preschool to 12th grade, never has a large contingent of seniors; the number usually hovers around 10.

The ceremony, set for May 25, will feature a long-held tradition: Graduates will get their diplomas and walk off stage to plant something on the school grounds. For the last few years (and again this year), it’s been a hibiscus — one for every graduate. Before that it was ti leaf.

The tradition has been around for at least two decades. Today the ti leaf and hibiscus plants line the campus buildings, little reminders to HSDB’s faculty of why they come to work every day.

"When you’re in the midst of teaching and working with our students and getting them ready to go beyond this school, you can’t see the forest for the trees," said Principal Dickerson. She said that when she sees those plants, she thinks, "Wow, I’ve had an impact on this many children. It revitalizes you. It’s very powerful."

HSDB’s class of 2011 is looking forward to the traditional planting — and to sharing their happy day with relatives, friends and more than a few strangers.

JOSHUA SALOMON, 18, from the Big Island, is also excited about another tradition: "I’m really excited to get all the leis," he said.

Salomon started at the school at 13 years old, and plans to attend California State University at Northridge in the fall.

Earlier this year he became Hawaii’s first deaf Eagle Scout.

His classmate Kostka, 20, entered the school at 12 after moving to Hawaii with his grandmother from Micronesia. There are no schools for the deaf there, he said, and when he arrived he didn’t know sign language.

HE SAID he wants to study business administration or physical education at Gallaudet University, which is a college for deaf and hearing-impaired people.

Harley Van Natta, 20, said he is shooting for a job at Lanakila Pacific, a service provider for people with disabilities. He has been at HSDB since he was 3.

He said he is looking forward to being recognized in front of the deaf community at next week’s ceremony. A lot of his friends will be there, he said.

"It’s touching," Van Natta said. "It makes me really happy."

Brittney Matsumoto of Hilo, 19, is HSDB’s only female graduate this year. She said she’s proud of the improvements she has made at the school since starting there at age 12.

She still remembers her first days at the school — and being awed that everyone knew sign language.

Matsumoto wants to attend community college and pursue a career in early childhood education.

"I’ve learned so much. I feel so proud," she said. "Now I want to go out and experience things."

Correction: Regan Honda, a college counselor at Farrington High School, was incorrectly identified as working at a different school in an earlier verison of this story.

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