Graduation is a big deal. It's sweet for kids for whom it was close to a given, but even more delicious for students and their parents when earning a diploma might have been in doubt just a couple of years ago.

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Graduation is a big deal.

It’s sweet for kids for whom it was close to a given, but even more delicious for students and their parents when earning a diploma might have been in doubt just a couple of years ago.

I watched 14 young men and women graduate last week from Seattle’s Ida B. Wells School. All of them had struggled in traditional high schools. Most would have muddled through, but instead of just surviving they entered a program that challenged them to work harder and think more deeply and critically.

Wells is one of four campuses in the Seattle School District’s Middle College High School. They’re alternative programs based on a national model aimed at getting into college more kids who come from groups not well-represented in higher education.

Wells is on the University of Washington campus. It has two teachers, Mary Ellen Cardella, who helped start the program in Seattle, and Rogelio Rigor. He teaches math and science, and she teaches humanities. Like college professors, they both create the curriculum they teach.

As the students received their diplomas, each was given a chance to speak. Several spoke about the caring and rigor of their teachers and the support of their families. Some said their attitudes about education had been transformed by a curriculum that felt more connected to their lives and to the world outside school than what they’d had in regular high schools.

Quiwaan Little said he went from dreading all the reading he was faced with, to feeling like a scholar. His teachers never let up on him, he said. “Ida B. Wells actually made me like waking up to go to school.”

Jamil Owens said that at his previous high school, “when I was asked a question by my teachers all I would say is ‘I don’t know.’ But as time went on, ‘I don’t know’ had to be taken from my vocabulary after many days of being on the hot seat and being grilled by Ms. Cardella.”

The program, he said, helped him see “society and life in a critical and analytical new light.”

Students say a lot of mushy stuff at graduation, but I’ve known Jamil since he was in kindergarten. Seeing him transform from detached to engaged made me want to know more about how that happens.

Cardella said she gets “kids who’ve been hiding out in high school. They’ve been sitting through classes, just hoping to get through the day.”

She and Rigor interview prospective students with their families. Students and their families have to be in it together, and they have to understand that the work will be more rigorous than what they’re used to.

Cardella uses college-level materials. She integrates subjects — history, politics, literature — so students get a holistic understanding of the period they are studying. They discuss ideas, the why of things, and write papers and rewrite them until they are up to her standards.

If a student falters, the school contacts the family and talks about the situation. There is constant communication between home and school.

“Mary Ellen is an excellent teacher,” Cindy Nash told me. Nash is principal of the four Middle College High School campuses. “Her curriculum is rigorous, so her students are really prepared for college when they leave her.”

Usually all of the students graduate, and about 80 percent go on to college.

Ed Taylor, University of Washington vice provost and dean of undergraduate affairs, spoke after the graduates and praised the way the school treats each student as an individual.

Cardella said she empathizes with teachers in big schools who struggle to do their best with 30 students in a class.

This was Cardella’s last year at Wells. She’s moving to New York to do “some research and writing,” she said.

But the model she helped establish will still be here, helping students find confidence in their intellectual skills.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or