AURORA | Mike Jennings wanted to be an example for his older brother when he walked across the stage to receive his high school diploma earlier this year.

“I wanted to see him do it before me, I was really looking forward to it,” Jennings said. “At the same time, I figured you have to show him. Sometimes, when it comes to kids coming from where we come from, they have to have a fact that tells them they can have a different life.”

Jennings’ strategy worked. He was a guest speaker during the graduation ceremony held Dec. 17 at the Aurora Public Schools Professional Learning and Conference Center. He watched his brother, Richard Jennings, receive his high school diploma, along with other students who had run the risk of dropping out.

Both Mike Jennings, 19, and his brother Richard Jennings, 20, had enrolled in the Ombudsman Rebound program through APS. The program is a partnership between APS, the Community College of Aurora, Colorado Youth for a Change and the national Ombudsman Educational Services; the initiative offers technology-based education tools, life training classes and intervention for at-risk students.

The personalized and demanding approach made all the difference for the 23 students who received their high school diplomas through the APS Ombudsman Rebound program this semester. Fifteen members of this fall’s graduating class attended the ceremony held at the conference center; they celebrated their accomplishment with parents, friends and peers.

Richard Jennings beamed as he crossed the stage and picked up his diploma; his smile only grew as he joined his brother, Mike, and his girlfriend and fellow Rebound graduate, Ravan Whittington, for the celebration that followed.

“It’s pretty much everything, man. I’ve been at it for a long time, a long time,” Richard Jennings said. “I can’t stop here. I’ve got to go on to college,” he added, citing his larger goals of eventually becoming a physical trainer.

Richard Jennings holds a special significance, considering the hurdles he and his brother had to face growing up. Their parents struggled with addiction and poverty; the Jennings children were shuffled between foster homes; they organized street fights as children as a way to make extra money. But the challenges of the past became a sort of inspiration for both of the brothers, as they made their way through the program.

“When it comes down to it, (we) really had the passion to do it. The Rebound staff helped bring that out,” Mike Jennings said. “School and learning, those are things that are really unimportant when you’re going day-to-day, watching over your shoulder. We all have the need to learn, but it needs to be brought out. That’s what Ombudsman did.”

Such success stories should not only serve as an inspiration to other teens enrolled in the Rebound program, but to administrators and students across the district, according to APS Superintendent John Barry.

“You have done the work; you move into the next phase of your life because of your success,” Barry said as he addressed the crowd of graduates during the ceremony. “You are examples. Graduates, you have earned and deserve our respect.”