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Graduates express gratitude to parents

One by one, the graduates of Center Academy, which specializes in kids with learning disabilities, say thanks.

Fifteen Pinellas County seniors, many with learning disabilities, were among the 34 statewide Center Academy graduates who received their high school diplomas Friday in ceremonies held at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

Center Academy, founded in 1970, specializes in helping adolescents who have difficulties in learning, motivation or concentration. The specialized program is individualized for students from fourth grade through high school and is accredited by the National Private Schools Accreditation Alliance.

The Academy now has seven campuses: Pinellas Park, Clearwater, Tampa, Ormond Beach, Altamonte Springs, Jacksonville, and London, England.

"Center Academy is a school where a kid like me, with special needs, is appreciated and understood," said senior Justin Kane. The Center Academy graduation did not have a speaker, or valedictorian or salutatorian. Instead, one by one, the students handed their parents special Ph.P. (Parents who Have a Part) diplomas as school officials read the audience thank-you essays written by the students.

"This is something I never expected: my graduation," wrote Eric Munson. "I had lost all hope of graduating or being successfully through high school. I have now pulled through and shown everyone my abilities and worth."

Joshua Possick said he entered Center Academy in the fourth grade "after a Montessori teacher told me I probably would be a failure in life. Boy, was she messed up!" Possick spoke of his individualized education program that included studying with special tutors and spending the last half of his senior year in a dual enrollment program with the Audubon Expedition Institute in California and Hawaii studying earthquakes and volcanos.

Katherine Beets thanked her parents for "not freaking out" when she wanted to drop out of school. "You didn't get too angry, you just started to help me explore other options," she said.

Seventy percent of this year's graduates are entering college in the fall, according to Eric Larson, the school's director. Students' career plans include marine biology, computer graphics and teaching.