Raymond Candelas didn't think he'd graduate high school.
"I rarely finished my work for any of my classes and only came to school to converse with my friends," he said. "I jumped from one high school to another, hoping I'd fall into place, yet I never did."
Deficient in credits even after an unsuccessful independent study attempt, Candelas was told he would be placed at Delta High School — the continuation school that serves Santa Maria-area students — to complete the last two years of his high school education.
"I was terrified to go back to school," he recalled. "I felt that what would happen to me before would surely happen again."
Standing on a stage at Santa Maria High School on Wednesday afternoon, Candelas, now dressed in a maroon robe and matching mortarboard, delivered the valedictory speech for Delta High's Class of 2018 to an excited crowd of family, friends and peers.
For the graduates assembled on Dave Boyd Field, the journey they thought they would never complete was finally coming to a close.
"Seniors, your graduation is far from being an end," Delta High Principal Esther Prieto-Chavez told the group. "It is the beginning of new goals and dreams to pursue. Whether you decide to go to college, a technical or vocational school, to the military or straight to work, I know you’ll represent Delta High School well."
Designated a Model Continuation School earlier this year, Delta staff have worked to provide students with additional academic, social and emotional support to reach graduation. More than half of the 337-person graduating class finished with between a 3.0 and 3.49 GPA, and roughly 40 percent have greater than a 3.5 GPA. During the school's Senior Award Night, 89 students received 183 awards. More than 110 had an attendance rate of 90 percent or better and six never missed a day of school.
Though Wednesday's ceremony was a celebration of the seniors' dedication and perseverance, Prieto-Chavez told parents that many of the sacrifices they made were not for nothing.
"For all the parents who came to the U.S. seeking good opportunities for your children," she said in Spanish, "today is proof of the first goal your children have accomplished. For those who work in fields every day and came to support your children, they will be first-generation graduates."
Class salutatorian Michael Losada-Rojas told graduates to "walk head high and march right into the future" knowing they finished high school.
"I struggled in a traditional high school but found acceptance, success and achievement at Delta," he said. "I am proud of everything I've accomplished — and so should you. Whether we were lost, forgotten or struggling, Delta came through and helped us find our path [to] graduation day."
Reflecting on her path to graduation, Ruby Estrada said she was honored and proud to call herself a Dragon. With the academic foundation Delta provided her, Estrada hopes to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering and plans to open an automotive clinic for women.
"Just because we go to Delta doesn't mean we're less entitled to chase our dreams and pursue our goals," she said. "There's nothing we can't do if we put our hearts and our minds to it."
Demonstrating the potential for graduates to achieve professional success, former Delta graduate Donald Denoyer, a California National Guard recruiter who facilitates an anti-bullying program within the district, told graduates that their journey to graduation was finally complete.
"This is, truly, your moment," he said. "This isn't the end of something but the beginning of your future. What you do with this is your choice."