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Bush praises middle-aged high school class

Diplomas for the night school class of James H. Groves Adult High School came hard. So after a season of graduation speeches at West Point, the U.S. Air Force Academy and Yale, President Bush offered to speak at little Groves High on Tuesday to make a point: "In a world of too many dashed hopes and dead ends, schools like Groves can open doors to a better future."

Groves is one of the few night schools in the nation accredited to grant a high school degree. The school was created to encourage adults who left school to earn a true diploma.

The president (Phillips Academy, Class of '42) shook hands with each of the 70 graduates (not counting a dozen others from a local prison who weren't permitted to attend and some others who couldn't get time off work).

William Gibbs was one of the valedictorians. He quit school 31 years ago in the 10th grade. After dropping out, he married, had six children and worked for Du Pont, as do many in this small rural city that calls itself itself "the Nylon Capital of the World" for its huge Du Pont factory.

He also had a heart attack. Now 48, he received his high school diploma Tuesday. "I may not get a better job. I may not go much farther in school. But once you get your education, no one can take it away from you," he told his class.

"Finish school, get your diploma, and follow your dreams," Gibbs said to cheers from his classmates and a crowd of 1,100 in the high school auditorium.

Vicki Eastburn, who is 32, was the other valedictorian. She thanked her teachers and classmates "for making me feel like just one of the kids."

She studied for her diploma while working as much as 60 hours a week and being mother to two children. She works at a pickle factory. She had dropped out at 16.

"What I got out of both you all's speeches is family, faith and determination," Bush said. "Thank you for giving us that great performance."

Millions of American adults are considered functionally illiterate. By one federal estimate, as many as 27-million Americans fall into that category. Bush has set universal adult literacy as one of his "America 2000" education goals.

Once the White House got involved, the 1991 Groves' commencement just wasn't the same. The band never did master Hail to the Chief and seats in a large part of the middle section of the auditorium had to be removed to accommodate a camera platform, reducing the number of guests. Bush arrived by helicopter and rode by limousine the several hundred feet from the football field to the school auditorium.

He told the graduates that they are an example of, and part of, his education crusade. "We salute your choice to become students again," he said. "When you drop out, you can almost hear the doors to opportunity slamming shut. But one door never closes. You can always return to school.

"We sometimes forget to keep reaching out to those who don't stay in school. Too often, without intending to, we as a society act almost as if when you drop out you drop off the end of the Earth.

"That's just not true, and you're living proof that it's not true.

"You may not realize it, but you are an example to many across this country. You're a part in this crusade."

_ Information from the Associated Press, Scripps Howard News Service and Times researcher Debbie Wolfe was used in this report.

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