On Thursday afternoon, 29 I-SS Career Academy and Technical School seniors were recognized for their accomplishment in earning a diploma following an unprecedented and challenging senior year.

Kaylin Babcock led her classmates and guests in the Pledge of Allegiance as CATS Firefighter Program students presented the colors, followed by a welcome by graduate Kelsey Sipes, who recognized special guests Superintendent Dr. Jeff James, I-SS School Board Chair Martin Page, and board member Bill Howell.

Sipes embraced the “positive energy” from both the in-person and virtual audience and thanked CATS faculty for giving students “a unique education tailored to our needs.” The i-Academy program “blessed students and allowed them to shine” and taught them time-management and independence, she added.

In his remarks, James challenged students to see graduation as not an end but a beginning of their life-long education and learning, building on the foundation provided in the iAcademy. James reminded students that the diploma they were about to receive boosts their lifetime income potential between $500,000 to $750,000.

After graduating, the superintendent recounted his educational journey, which began at Mitchell College and resulted in his earning seven degrees over the years because “I like to learn. I encourage each of you to continue this learning journey in your life because it does impact the salary you can make and the impact that you can have on others.”

James lauded the “outside the box” concept of the iAcademy, which has been emulated by other school districts. “Unfortunately, our public education system was stuck in a one model fits all, and as you know as students, that doesn’t work for everyone,” he said.

After parent Andrea Galliher performed an emotional rendition of “The Climb,” Honor Speaker Hunter Williams recounted his journey and growth through the iAcademy and CATS as well as the confidence and maturity instilled in him by his teachers.

“When I started at CATS, I never thought I would give a speech at my graduation ceremony. I didn’t have the skills to stand in front of an audience to give a speech.”

Williams, who is autistic, said that CATS put him in in a social setting that helped him overcome social challenges and become a role model and helper to his peers.

To his teachers, Williams said, “Thank you for seeing that there was more in me and pushing me to be the best that I can be.”

As he concluded, Williams reminded his fellow students that only they can write the next chapters of their lives. “Just make it a freaking awesome one!” he said.

Honor Speaker Matthew Fisher enjoyed the flexibility of the iAcademy, which allowed him to accelerate his math studies, explore other classes like power lifting, amateur radio, and culinary arts, and travel the world with his parents while keeping up with his studies.

“I wasn’t simply checking off the boxes everyone else was checking off.”

“I was able to design a high school experience unique to me,” which involved taking courses at CATS, Lake Norman High School, Mitchell Community College, and online. As a result, Fisher is transferring to N.C. State University with 40 college credits.

“The benefits of this program will continue to pay off even throughout college.”

Fisher thanked Principal Larry Rogers and counselor Sonja Lewis for their help and support over the years. “Both she and Mr. Rogers removed unnecessary barriers that occasionally popped up as I pursued my non-traditional education,” he said. “I’ll always be thankful for their support.”

Lewis recognized several students who graduated with honors, including Summa Cum Laude graduates Matthew Anton Fisher and Kelsey Brianne Sipes, Magna Cum Laude graduates Kaylin Renee Babcock and Kaley Raine Madsgard, and Cum Laude graduate Adelin Dae Bennett.

Other graduates included Mackenzie Grace Blake, Zakari Diesel Brown, Anthony Mikel Bulkley, Evan Michael Carpenter, Lydia Jane Ervin, Jaden Ashley Fox, Trenton Reid Fox, Devon Lawrence Kleppe, Tammy Danielle McKinney, Taylor Ann Pennell, Brooke Erin Price, Sarah Christine Rhyne, Gavin Alexander Richardson, Laura Leigh Richardson, and Hunter Evan Williams.

Students who graduated in absentia were Hollie Christina Benfield, Brian Colin Borst, Skylar Nicole Ferrell (early graduate), Katie Samantha Gilbert, Noah Benjamin Lewis, Peyton Alex Nicholson (early graduate), Aliza Jae Phillips, Brittan Charleigh Rudnick (early graduate), and Anna Grace Saxton.

Before asking students to turn the tassels, Rogers commended the graduates for being focused and determined to reach this milestone amidst economic and social crises and a pandemic. He asked them to use their accomplishments to help make the struggling world a better place and to create happy lives.

“Believe in yourself. People will come and go in your life, but the person in the mirror will be there forever. So be good to yourself. Don’t let fear or insecurity stop you from trying new things.”

“Believe in yourself, and the rest will fall into place. Have faith in your abilities, work hard, and there’s nothing you cannot accomplish. Do what you love, and remember to be kind to others,” concluded Rogers.

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