AUGUSTA — Sarah Colantonio credits her daughter, Adreiyanna, as the main reason she was able to walk across the stage Friday night at the Augusta Adult and Community Education program’s graduation to receive her high school diploma. 

After a tough time at her original high school, Colantonio dropped out before her senior year. But over the past four years, she tested out of every exam needed to determine placement in the adult education program — except math. So she worked endlessly with teacher Tom Renckensto and finally passed.

But then the coronavirus pandemic hit and she had to move to online classes.

Inspired by her daughter’s perseverance as she “navigated a hearing world as a deaf person,” Colantonio knew she could do whatever she set her mind to, just like her daughter does everyday. She went from being someone who did not care much about school, to being at the top of her class and making the Dean’s list in her first year of college.

“I think when you have a child, the idea of being a role model changes,” Colantonio said. “My daughter is looking up to me.”

In addition to setting an example for her daughter, as a transgender woman, Colantonio wants to be a role model for the trans community. The 31-year-old has been “living authentically” for five years now.

“The transgender community is often overlooked,” she said, “and they need positive role models of people they can look up to.”

Kristi Moreau, left, laughs as she poses for a photo with her son Kaleb Coron before the Augusta Adult and Community Education graduation Friday outside Cony High and Middle School in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

In addition to Colantonio, 16 other graduates from the Augusta Adult and Community Education program’s class of 2020 joined 28 members of the class of 2021 at a ceremony last week, celebrating their persevering through the pandemic to receive their high school equivalency diplomas.

Helen Emery, administrative assistant for the adult education program, said students in the program “kept plugging along,” and the celebration was “much needed.” The first Helen Emery Scholarship, named after her, was presented Friday to student William Osmond.

William Osmond waves to the audience after being awarded the first annual Helen Emery Scholarship during the Augusta Adult and Community Education program graduation Friday at Cony High and Middle School in Augusta. The award is named in honor of Helen Emery, who has worked in the Augusta program since 1981. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Colantonio’s favorite teacher, Renckens, presented her with the John B. Foster Scholarship.

Since finishing the program in 2020, Colantonio has enrolled at Kennebec Valley Community College to bec ome an occupational therapy assistant. She also credits that success to her 14-year-old daughter, and said she strives to use her education to help others in Maine’s deaf community.

“There is a need for deaf services in Maine,” Colantonio said. “When people think of that, usually they think of a therapist, or interpreter, or case manager, but I think OT’s are often overlooked.

“If I were to look for a signing individual who is an OT, I don’t think I would ever find that,” she added. “Using an interpreter is beneficial, but not optimal.”

While Colantonio did not have many of adult education classes online, a bulk of her KVCC courses have taken place online.

A member of the adult education program’s class of 2021, Amanda Lawson, however, has had most of hers online.

Jamie Riggin, left, hugs her sister Amanda Lawson after Lawson graduated during the Augusta Adult and Community Education program commencement Friday at Cony High and Middle School in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The 19-year-old enrolled in the AACE program about two years ago, when she was going into what would have been her junior year. Between home schooling and changing schools due to her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, Lawson was a couple of years behind, according to public school standards. When she was younger, she said had a hard time paying attention in public schools, so her family moved her to a special services program.

Lawson began in a traditional classroom, then the pandemic hit.

“The first year was a hard struggle. I wasn’t doing so great. But even if I wasn’t, they were working with me,” she said. “The second year, with COVID-19, was easier. We learned the stuff, did the Zoom calls. But it was a different environment (than public schools).”

One of the more-difficult aspects of  remote learning was using Zoom and opening up her room to her classmates and teachers. She called her room her “safe space,” so to her it felt strange to “invite” them into it.

Mustafa Abdul Kareem and other graduates wave at friends and family in the audience after getting their diplomas during Augusta Adult and Community Education program graduation Friday at Cony High and Middle School in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Lawson said she appreciated the time teachers took to ensure students were doing well and not falling behind academically, including during the ongoing pandemic.

“I never felt like I was alone,” Lawson said.

Like Colantonio, Lawson said she struggled with math, but her passion is art. Her goal is to attend the University of Maine at Farmington to pursue an art degree.

“It’s sad to graduate,” Lawson said. “It’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”

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