As the graduates of Delaware School for the Deaf head to the next chapter of their lives, they took time during commencement Monday to look back at their time at the school where they all essentially grew up.

“We've had a lot of fun. We've learned so many different things in the classroom setting and out of the classroom setting as well,” Juan Banda, the Class of 2019’s valedictorian and recipient of the Richard Evans Lewis Memorial Scholarship, told the family members and friends who came to the ceremony.

“We've learned that success doesn't come without challenges,” he said. “Now, most importantly, we've learned how to really face those challenges, and really how to advocate for ourselves and never, ever give up.”

Before the ceremony, the graduates agreed they were nervous but excited about what the future had in store for them. The students were interviewed with the assistance of an interpreter.

“I’m feeling proud,” said Shalin Phillips.

“I'm feeling nervous because I'm entering this real world but, you know what, I'm ready, I’m pumped,” Dominic Hecker added.

Eight students graduated from DSD this year. The school, which serves about 115 students from birth to 21, is housed in the Christina School District, but provides support to all public schools and charters in Delaware.

Monday’s graduation saw five Christina students graduate, and one student each from the Caesar Rodney, Brandywine and Colonial school districts.

“We might be a cute, cute, small school in comparison with some of our larger high schools and elementary schools around the state, but we have a very large impact on this state. For our students, this building and everyone here in this room has really made an impact on you,” said Daphne Werner, K-12 school leader. “We've been a home for you. We given you a safe place. We've provided opportunities. We've offered you many different role models. And we've also taught you many things.”

Some of those things, she noted, were “book things.” Others – like being a friend, figuring out goals and even how to order food from a drive-thru – were “life things.”

“It's been an honor for DSD to provide you with all of these different experiences,” she said.

Jy’Ajia Bratten, recipient of the Pat Fernandes “Tweety” Award, said it was hard to pick a highlight of her time at DSD because she just loved it all.

“In a blink of an eye, it was here,” she said of graduation. “I'm excited but I'm also nervous because I'm entering this real world and I'm going to college next year, but I'm ready for my future to start.”

Bratten noted that she will be heading to Johnson and Wales University for the culinary arts program.

Kaliek Hayes will miss the NETworks program – which teaches students employable skills – while Justin Bazemore said he will miss the residential program and sports program at DSD, and Justin LaCourt will miss his friends.

“Well, I know that we're all going to go off on our own separate ways now and try out our own new lives and I'm sure we're all going to miss DSD of course,” Bratten said. “It's just a wonderful thing to graduate with the class of 2019.”

Chris Congleton, a paraprofessional at the school, told the students in his commencement address that where they go and what they do “will never be as important as who you are.”

“Your future depends on the choices you make. And the choices you make from this point on depend on you,” he said. “Life is unpredictable and not easy. To reach your goal, you’ll need to plan for it, you’ll need to work for it and sometimes you’ll need to fight for it. But it’s worth it. Your plan is what you do, but your goal? That’s who you are.”

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