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With comments tailored to each student’s personality and progress, John Archer School celebrated Friday 10 students who completed their program of study.

The commencement will be the last for Principal Mary Denton, who is retiring after 17 years with the county’s only public school for students with disabilities.

Denton said she does not have any immediate plans after retiring.

About her time at John Archer, she said, “I have enjoyed and loved the job and the school.”

During the ceremony, about 100 family members and friends filled the school’s multipurpose room as 10 students in bright red caps and gowns, with blue-and-white boutonnieres and corsages, filed in proudly to get certificates and gift bags.

Graduate Michael Grant was absent because his mother died a week earlier.

Assistant Principal Gerald Horn made remarks about each of the graduates, who have varying levels of disabilities.

“This is an exciting time here for us at John Archer. There are many special things about this class,” he said.

Chelsea Anderson, he said, enjoys music, especially Disney songs, and “collects people.” Horn joked that the staff may be planning to form a Chelsea Anderson Fan Club.

Joshua Gavlinski was noted for having “a permanent smile attached to his face.”

Ronald Hardesty, known for his work ethic, is genuinely concerned about others and always made sure a physically disabled peer had a partner during dance class.

Andrea Heim is “very curious and needs to know the facts, even if you are not ready to divulge them,” while Michael King Jr. enjoys taking things apart and playing clarinet and piano.

Ryan Logan likes exercising and listening to music, and Charles McCoy Jr. — known as C.J. — “under different circumstances ... would carry his athletic abilities to regional success.”

Kara Wolf, he said, has improved her walking skills and is “very attentive to her environment and, I am sure, collecting notes to write a tell-all book about the John Archer staff.”

Grant, who was not at the ceremony, was remembered for being a friend to his peers and comforting others when realizing they are upset.

Horn said some of the graduates have learned skills that many people have yet to master, noting that Amanda Woods has become patient and learned to remain calm when those around her are not.

Harford County Councilman Dion Guthrie, whose grandson attends the school and was in the choir, said caring for a child with disabilities is a unique experience.

“It’s hard to explain to somebody else who has not raised a special needs child like this,” he said. “It’s a lifetime commitment. “

The John Archer Singers, the school choir, performed the songs “You’re Beautiful to Me,” “Helping Me Grow,” “As You Walk Through This World” and “You Raise Me Up,” often signing as they sang.

After the ceremony, graduates and guests gathered for some dessert in the cafeteria.

The tight-knit group included not just family members, but bus drivers and social workers who came to celebrate along with their students.

Charles “C.J.” McCoy Jr. excitedly showed off to a bus driver the medal on a ribbon he received.

“Joe, look at this! It’s a gold medal,” he said.

Besides being excited for the graduation, family members had very positive comments about the school.

“The teachers at John Archer are angels,” said Bernadette King, of Jarrettsville, grandmother of student Michael King Jr.

His mother, Frances King, said her son has become interested in music, taken individual piano lessons and enjoyed woodshop since coming to John Archer.

“He has just come so far, such a long way,” she said. “We never thought we would see the day that he would graduate.”

Bob Heim, of Joppatowne, said it has been a pleasure to have his daughter, Andrea, attend the school.

“The people here have always been helpful. They are always available,” he said.

Asked how she felt about graduating, Andrea had one word that seemed to sum up the feelings of all the students: “Great.”

Wendy Leonard, PTA president, presented the graduates with gift bags that she later said contained clock radios.

“I remember when we first learned my son had developmental delays,” she said. “I would like to say I was a little scared, but I was a lot scared.”

Leonard said she has appreciated the fact that the school recognizes each child as an individual and all accomplishments, no matter how big or small, are celebrated.

During the last reprieve of the chorus for “You Raise Me Up,” many members of the graduating class spontaneously stood up to sing and sign exuberantly along with the choir.

Many of the graduates have worked at area organizations, including Aberdeen Proving Ground and the adjacent Oak Grove Baptist Church, and will move on to The Arc or Chimes organizations for people with disabilities.


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