Marques Young had faced plenty of challenges before he walked across the temporary stage set up in a conference room at the Wildlife Experience museum in Parker on Dec. 18.
Young joined 19 classmates from Endeavor Academy for a very important milestone – the group was the school's very first graduating class since Endeavor secured its status earlier in 2015 as the Cherry Creek School District's seventh high school. In front of a crowd packed with Endeavor teachers and staff, as well as dozens of beaming family members, Young accepted his diploma from Board of Education member Dave Willman and shook hands with Superintendent Dr. Harry Bull.
Those confident steps across the stage came after years of struggle, perseverance and hard work. Like most students at Endeavor Academy, Young's path to graduation was far from smooth. He'd attended both Cherry Creek and Cherokee Trail high schools, and neither offered a good academic or social fit. He'd harbored doubts about his future in the district; even after enrolling at Endeavor, he'd wondered if graduation was a viable prospect.
"It's hard when it feels like no one is on your side and you're just there to graduate," Young said a few weeks before the ceremony. "My family thought I was going to give up. They knew that I had it in me, even though I was still feeling down about myself. (Endeavor Principal Mark) Morgan, my family, all the other counselors and teachers – they all encouraged me.
"I stayed and I did what I had to do," he added.
Encouragement has long been part of the central mission at Endeavor, a facility that for years has offered an alternative path for students from across the district who have been unsuccessful in the traditional high school environment. With an emphasis on re-engagement, individualized support and shared responsibility, the staff at Endeavor has always sought to establish a sense of belonging for students who feel as if they've been left behind.
This year, however, that mission was even more pressing. Gaining the status of an independent high school as opposed to a satellite program has offered students and staff alike a deeper sense of purpose and identity. Young and the other 19 students who walked across the stage in December received diplomas hand-signed by the Cherry Creek School District's highest-ranking administrators and, unlike past years, the documents bore the name of the school that had made such a difference in their academic careers.
"It's just such an exciting moment, that quality of attention to detail for our kids, where they really do feel special," said Endeavor Principal Mark Morgan. "It's our first graduation ceremony. They're excited, they're nervous and we're nervous, because we've never done this before. We've got a lot to look forward to."
The school's first year as a formal high school has featured plenty of important progress. Endeavor administrators have developed their relationship with local juvenile courts and intervention programs. They've worked to develop ties with local community colleges and launched student leadership courses in the wilderness of Estes Park. Endeavor has spearheaded a night school program for credit recovery, and developed concurrent enrollment courses to help develop workforce-ready skills.
"Everything that we talked about two years ago is coming true, and we're very excited about all of it," Morgan said.
These initiatives, along with the work to solidify Endeavor's own independent identity and philosophy, have made all the difference for students like Brielle Bivins, another member of the school's inaugural graduating class. After unsuccessful stretches at other high schools and even at Endeavor, Bivins finally found the direction and commitment to earn her diploma.
"This is a place where you can open up, where you feel safe," she said. "It's kind of like a second home. You can relate to the kids, you can relate to the teachers. You have real-life connections."
The value of such a network goes far beyond graduation. Bivins, the first in her immediate family to graduate from high school, is finalizing plans for college, aiming eventually for a possible post as a social worker. Young is also bound for college at Metropolitan State University of Denver, where he plans to study broadcasting and communications.
The significance of the event wasn't lost on anyone in attendance at the ceremony, including Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Dr. Harry Bull.
"It's a big day," Bull said simply. "Today, you will receive a diploma from Endeavor high school – your high school. You'll have every opportunity that any other high school graduate has. Let that come over you."
That significant achievement came after plenty of struggle for all of the 20 graduates in attendance. It's no wonder, then, that Young's parting message to Endeavor's first graduating class consisted of a reading of the poem "Invictus" by English poet William Ernest Henley. While the distance between Endeavor's graduating seniors of 2015 and an English Victorian poet may seem vast, the verses contained a message that would be easily relatable for any of the students picking up their diploma.
"'It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll," Young read to the crowd. "'I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.'"