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Excel Academy students overcome struggles to graduate and achieve academic dreams

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Imagine the feeling of setting a goal you thought was unrealistic – only to achieve it despite huge odds.

Dozens of grads at the Excel Academy schools did just that. CBS 2's Steven Graves met some of the students who are getting a second chance to achieve their academic dreams.

The graduation ceremony for the multiple Chicago campuses of Excel Academy was held at Christ Universal Temple, 11901 S. Ashland Ave.

At the ceremony, each tear shed is a heavy emotional release. There is joy, fear, shock, and happiness from students - or even a grandmother who could barely hold her composure.

And you'll understand why when you hear many say this:

"I thought I wasn't going to make it to graduate," said Destiny Johnson.

"Especially when you have a lot of hardships and stuff," said James Dillard, a graduating high school senior from Englewood.

Dillard said he switched high schools eight times.

"I got in trouble with police – all type of stuff," he said.

The 17-year-old changed course at Excel Academy. As he graduated, he thought about his young sisters, and those who can't be at the ceremony - his mom and grandma who passed away.

"Being here today looks like Black Excellence," Dillard said.

Excellence radiates as Excel Academies' students from across the city's South and West sides walk the stage. Many did so after struggling with traditional public schooling, and on top of it, the pressures of a pandemic and a sometimes-tough home life.

Now imagine the feat of overcoming that and now being on track with a plan for future success - which is a requirement to graduate along with credits.

A total of 68 percent of Excel graduates will pick up a trade or career, 21 percent are going to college, 7 percent are on a gap year program, and 4 percent are going into the military.

Johnson, who overcame what she calls tough childhood, wears a graduation cap that sums up this moment. It reads: "Isn't it remarkable? The world is full of so many possibilities?"

It is full of possibilities for people who might have given up on themselves.

"You know how you are in a race and you come in first?" Johnson said. "It's like that feeling."

And the graduate are now ready to prove others who doubt them wrong.

In the end, roughly 150 young people walked across the stage – all of whom can now proudly say they are high school graduates.

Ninety percent of seniors who started the school year with Excel Academies got their diplomas Thursday.

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