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Summit Academy graduates dozens who find the right path

| Saturday, June 28, 2008

Saladin Kirkland was given a stark choice last year by the Philadelphia judge who sentenced him for attempted armed robbery: prison or school.

Ten months after he faced the judge, Kirkland, 17, was one of 35 students who walked out of Summit Academy in Butler County with a high school diploma on Friday. He plans to attend Berkeley College in New York City and study fashion design.

"It's marvelous, miraculous really. My mother is really crying a lot," said Kirkland, who grew up in North Philadelphia.

The graduates wore caps and gowns and marched to "Pomp and Circumstance." When the procession began, the standing-room-only crowd of about 600 cheered loudly and many stood on benches to snap photos.

"This gets a little better every year. What greater reward is there than changing other peoples' lives," said Stephen Sherer, the school's director.

Since it was founded in 1996, more than 3,000 students have attended Summit, in a former Catholic seminary in Herman.

Every student at the private school was placed there by the courts. The longest anyone attends Summit is two years.

"We don't use the boot camp approach. We are the opposite of a jail. The better you do here, the longer you get to stay," said Samuel Costanzo, the school's founder and headmaster.

Costanzo said he believes in second chances, especially with young people. "All their lives, our students have been caught doing something wrong. Our job is to catch them doing something right."

The commencement speaker, Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch, echoed that message.

"Become a first-rate version of yourself as opposed to a second-rate version of someone else," he told the graduates.

Adam Hommer said nine months ago, his life was on a downward spiral.

Yesterday, Hommer, who had a 4.0 grade-point average and scored a perfect 1,600 on Scholastic Aptitude tests, gave the valedictorian's address.

"Thankfully, I was sent to a progressive facility instead of just being recycled through the system. I now know who I am," he said.

Hommer, who was sent to Summit because of "a pretty bad drug problem," will attend West Virginia University -- Parkersburg and plans to pursue a degree in chemical engineering.

In addition to his academic accomplishments, Hommer, who is 18 and from New Martinsville, W.Va., said he developed as a person at Summit.

"It was a big cultural shock. I am from a small town in West Virginia and never knew people from large cities like Philadelphia. Now, I have many new friends."

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