There were no caps, no gowns, and very little pomp.

But whatever the circumstances that brought them to Willard Alternative High School, the 81 graduates didn't seem to mind the lack of formality as they marched forth Thursday night to receive their diplomas.

"We are alternative," said Willard principal Jane Bennett, kicking off the evening, "and proud of it."

Her words brought down the house in the Music Recital Hall on the UM campus, where the ninth class of Willard graduates accepted their diplomas without a tassel to turn on mortarboards that weren't there anyway.

The ceremony was unlike almost any other commencement most people have attended.

There were no utterings of "Mr." or "Ms." or "Mrs." to address teachers and staff, those formalities a casualty of the teaching style at Willard.

There were whoops and hollers and crowd eruptions normally heard at a rock concert.

And the only caps present were those of the baseball genre, turned backwards on the heads of boys about to make a passage into manhood.

With their departure, there are now officially 615 alumni of Willard, which was founded to help students who, for a million reasons, were kicked out of or simply could not assimilate into other high schools.

None of the three Willard graduates invited to speak at the commencement shared much of their stories.

What they did share was how Willard and its staff changed them, and made them realize the value of the little piece of paper they were about to receive.

Said graduate Kiersten Radabaugh, who discovered her talent for writing and poetry at Willard:

"I learned that I have talent and I have ambition and teachers who care."

Said graduate Amanda Satterlee, who had never stepped foot into a public school before she came to Willard:

"At Willard, we are encouraged to think independently, to share our pain and to think outside the box."

Said Ty Lane-Salvador, introduced by a Willard teacher as having an "invincible nature":

"For the first time, I was excited to go to school.

"I felt like they were my family," said the boy who had dropped out of two Missoula high schools.

He then turned to his 80 fellow graduates.

"And you know what? We did it together."

Reach Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at


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