BY JANE RILEY-GAMBRELL

The approaching end of the current school year turns our thoughts once again to the joyous expressions on the faces of graduating seniors, some from colleges and universities, some from high schools both public and private. Not so many years ago, we faced this time of year with some fear that Charleston and its "dropout factories" might again appear near the bottom of the list in high school graduation rates. But those days are changing, and we have more and more successes to celebrate across our area each and every year.

For those of us at Communities In Schools (CIS) and in like-minded organizations who focus on keeping students in school through graduation, this is an especially celebratory time for us as we mark the upticks in the graduation rate each year and note the increasing numbers of college acceptances by students who are not only the first members of their families to earn high school diplomas, but the first among their circle of relatives and friends to even consider attending college. When you've grown up with few positive role models and faced daily obstacles in just getting to school and functioning "normally," then the proud wearing of a mortarboard and gown are great accomplishments indeed.

An article last weekend in this paper profiled one of our 2014 graduating stars, a student from Burke High School who credits CIS with helping her achieve her goals and aspire for more. As Raven Saunders moves on into what will no doubt be a trophy-winning and option-filled future, others across our community are also stepping onto and across the stage with great promise. Of the students who have worked intensively over time with our in-school CIS student support specialists, three are representing their class as valedictorians, and a quarter of them are in the top 10 percent. We are not talking about area schools with traditionally high rates of student success - the valedictorians just mentioned attend Burke, North Charleston, and Lincoln High Schools. Rather, we are celebrating students in schools often at the opposite end of the spectrum, those categorized as high poverty, underperforming, and in need of significant improvement.

And still our students are defying the odds and making us - all of us - proud!

On Monday, our National CIS organization kicked off what is being called the "World's Biggest Graduation Celebration," connecting real-time social media interactions with millions of students across the nation on their graduation days to create an unprecedented online "processional" of graduates. Graduating seniors and their families, mentors and friends are being invited to share graduation day photos, videos and messages on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Vine, using the hashtag #ClassofChange. Our community can also share in the achievements of 1.3 million CIS students across the country and the hundreds of students locally who succeed in spite of the many challenges they face. We invite everyone in our community to join the celebration by posting well-wishes, photos and videos celebrating any and all of our local graduates - CIS student or not - to the National Graduation Card at facebook.com/communitiesinschools or to the National Yearbook at classofchange.tumblr.com.

We are grateful to the Charleston community for your encouragement of all of our young people and your recognition that all of our families, neighborhoods, businesses and organizations benefit when our children achieve academic success. Volunteers and mentors are always needed if you have time to share with a local student, and our first-ever major fundraising challenge campaign also welcomes your support in helping us reach our $100,000 goal.

Check us out at www.cischarleston.org or call us at 843.740.6793 for more information.

Jane Riley-Gambrell is executive director of Communities In Schools of the Charleston Area.