It's more than a piece of paper

A 83-year-old grandmother waits 65 years to get her diploma.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published September 12, 2007

For 65 years, Sophie Brzezinski wondered what it would feel like to be a high school graduate.

The second World War short-circuited her graduation plans in 1942, and six children kept her busy for years after that. By the time she'd raised them, she was caring for an ailing husband and four grandchildren.

When she finally began taking adult education classes in 1995, she got stumped by the "new math."

All those obstacles melted away Tuesday night as Brzezinski, clad in a crimson cap and gown, accepted an honorary diploma from Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.

For Brzezinski, 83, it was a dream come true.

"When I die and St. Peter asks, 'What did you do down there?' I'm going to say, 'I passed my GED. Aren't you proud of me?'" she said shortly before the ceremony.

Brzezinski was among 183 students honored at the district's 22nd countywide graduation ceremony. Most had passed the General Educational Development test and received a state of Florida diploma. Fifteen received their regular high school diplomas.

While district officials say they prefer students to stay in school, they work hard to provide an alternative for those who can't. About 16,000 students of all ages attend one of the district's three community schools, three adult education centers and two technical education centers each year.

More than 2,000 successfully completed the requirements for graduation this past year, said Laura Sargent, supervisor of adult, community and work force education.

It's not an easy way out of high school, Sargent said. Students must receive a minimum score of 410 in each of the GED test's five sections. They must receive an overall score of 2,250, which means they could pass each of the individual tests, but not necessarily earn a diploma.

Brzezinski suspects it would have been much easier for her to graduate if she'd stayed in school back in Plymouth, Pa., instead of dropping out. But with two brothers in the service, she wanted to support the war effort.

For several years, she sewed stars on the American flags that draped soldiers' caskets. She also sewed mosquito netting to protect soldiers in the South Pacific from malaria.

"It was a different time," she said. "They weren't pushing education."

When she started taking classes at the Clearwater Adult Education Center nearly 50 years later, she kept it to herself, not even telling her husband at first. She says she didn't want anyone to think she was showing off.

She passed the writing, reading, social studies and science sections of the GED test, but she struggled with math. After several years, her teacher, Trisha Shropshire, wrote to then-Gov. Jeb Bush, asking him to give Brzezinski an honorary diploma.

The governor offered. Brzezinski declined. She said she didn't want anything handed to her.

But last year, Brzezinski accepted Wilcox's offer of a Pinellas County high school diploma. Her children and grandchildren had graduated from Clearwater High, and Wilcox told her she could wear the school's crimson cap and gown if she participated in the ceremony.

Brzezinski was the oldest graduate Tuesday night, but she wasn't the only one with a story.

Cynthia VanHoven, 41, a Pinellas school district employee, received her diploma along with her 17-year-old twins, Jessica and Jonathan Faircloth. She returned to school hoping for a better job. Shortly after passing the GED test, she was promoted to head plant operator at Bauder Elementary.

Brandy Robertson, 17, already is enrolled in the veterinary program at St. Petersburg College.

And Carlton A. Langston, 47, a former painter, hopes to become a drug counselor. He said his four children look up to him now that he's earned a diploma.

Adult education teacher Judith Ruffner said she was proud of all of the students.

"I really have the best job in the world," she said. "These students are really focused on the future."

Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or 727 893-8413.


Smart cookies

2,153 State of Florida diplomas awarded in 2006-07 by the Pinellas School District's department of adult, community and workforce education

183 Graduates walking in this year's countywide ceremony

10 High schools represented

22 Honor graduates

168 Adult graduates

15 High school graduates