It took Pedro Ellis nearly 20 years before he could walk across the stage in his cap and gown and finally earn his high school diploma — all because of a bill that passed earlier this year.
"I still smile every time I look at my diploma," he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It was a long time coming."
Ellis, 38, was a student at Booker T. Washington High School in 1996, and like the estimated 9,000 other Georgians who failed a part of the Georgia High School Graduation Test, he wasn't eligible to graduate.
He found out he wouldn't be joining his classmates across the stage on the day of his first graduation practice.
"I wasn't aware of the rule and thought I'd still be able to practice with my graduating class," he said. "I thought I'd just go back and pass."
Determined, Ellis took the exam at least three more times, and with each scored within a few points of passing, he said.
He was close to giving up as he tried to find work, until he married his wife, who encouraged him to broaden his knowledge. Over the years, he started going to the library to look up information on GED courses and took several sample tests online, but couldn't seem to master the mathematics.
"And then I got the good news from a good friend. Oh lord, it was good," Ellis said.
The state retired the graduation test starting with the 2011 freshman class. Its own study had found, "Students who score higher on the High School Graduation Test have roughly the same college GPA as students who scored much lower.”
When Gov. Nathan Deal signed the bill in February, eliminating the test as a graduation requirement and allowing former students who were previously ineligble to graduate to petition for their diploma, Ellis jumped right onto the Atlanta Public Schools website and signed up.
"There was an option asking, 'Would you like a ceremony?' and I knew I was putting down a yes," Ellis said.
On Wednesday night, he was one of 138 former APS students at a graduation ceremony inside the Georgia World Congress Center's Sidney Marcus Auditorium.
Ellis' wife, father and 15-year-old son attended the ceremony, and his mother — who couldn't join due to health issues — was waiting for him to visit in his cap and gown right after.
Next, he plans to join his wife at Strayer University.
"I'm not going to stop now," he said.
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