If it weren't for her 2-year-old son Daniel, Michelle Dickerson would not have been up on the Willson Auditorium stage Saturday afternoon collecting her high school diploma.

The 18-year-old, who has been living on her own since she was 16 and her father passed away, said she doesn't know where she'd be without her brown-eyed little boy.

"He's the only way I made it through" high school, she said. "He gave me a reason to keep going."

So it was fitting that Daniel, dressed in a miniature suit vest and tiny purple-and-white-striped tie, accompanied Dickerson as she made her way to the stage with other members of the Bridger Alternative Program class of 2010.

And as each of the 32 graduating seniors were recognized with whoops, cheers and tears from parents, spouses, relatives, friends and children, Daniel sat patiently on Dickerson's lap, drinking from a bottle of milk

It was, Dickerson said, "the best day of my life."

Saturday's ceremony marked the end of Bridger Alternative's residency in the Willson School. Next year the program, a branch of Bozeman High School meant to help pregnant teens and other youth at risk of dropping out, will reside on the main Bozeman High campus.

For most of the graduating seniors, Bridger was a last chance, a place they were sent when, for whatever reason, the traditional options weren't working. And for many, the "family feel" and supportive atmosphere allowed them to thrive, to achieve goals that had previously seemed unrealistic.

Natacha Schwellenbach, who delivered the class speech, said that she had been on the "five-year" high school track before she came to Bridger. During her freshman year at BHS, she said she frequently skipped class and failed almost every course.

But Bridger changed all that, she said.

"The school taught me more than math and science," she said. "It taught me how to live.

"I learned things that weren't in the curriculum, like how to work with people I didn't like, and how to watch my mouth."

Schwellenbach, who graduated a semester early and plans to attend Butte College in Chico, Calif., said she credits the staff, who became like "second aunts and uncles," and her fellow seniors-"my cousins"-for helping her achieve her goals.

"No one at this school gives up on anyone," she said.

In his commencement speech, teacher Richard Galli offered the graduates some standard advice for life after high school, but also encouraged them to ignore conventional wisdom and to find the path best suited for them, whether it be college, trade school or part-time employment.

"Find the world on your own terms," he said. "You already found Bridger Alternative on your own terms."

Lauren Russell can be reached at lrussell@dailychronicle.com or 582-2635.

“No one at this school gives up on anyone.”

- Natacha Schwellenbach
Bridger Alternative Program, Class of 2010