SALT LAKE CITY — Raeli Aiono stood in front of a wall of memorabilia at Northwest Middle School, pointing to her place in a class photo from when she attended the school four years ago.
"It's really crazy. It feels like just yesterday I was in this spot," said Aiono, who graduated from West High School on Friday.
Nearby, other soon-to-be graduates from the high school reminisced on seemingly near and distant memories of their time at the middle school while wearing their black and red graduation regalia.
Some found younger siblings in the crowd of middle-schoolers. Others hugged and laughed with former teachers, recounting the days when high school graduation seemed far away.
Several schools in the Salt Lake City School District welcomed back former students prior to their high school graduation this week in a graduation walk, a gathering intended to celebrate the accomplishment of older students while instilling academic ambition in younger students.
Aiono walked the halls of the middle school with her classmates to the cheers of teachers and middle-schoolers. It feels good to graduate, she said, but she hopes it leaves an impact on younger students at Northwest, especially her brother, Caleb.
"I hope they'll see themselves as us. I really wish we had this when I was here because I would have set my standards higher," she said. "So I hope they get the same from us."
Sayra Geraldo, one of Aiono's classmates, had similar hopes.
"We have siblings here, so we want them to look up to us in a way," Geraldo said. "We have teachers here that inspired us as well, so we want them to see what we became. Our friendships started here."
West High School has historically maintained graduation rates higher than the district average. Last year, the school had a graduation rate of 80 percent, compared with 74 percent for the district.
Utah's overall high school graduation rate last year was 84 percent, a 1 percent increase from the year before and a 15 percent increase from 2008.
Educators are pleased with the gains, but having 1 in 5 students not earn a diploma is still too common a shortfall, according to Northwest Middle School teacher Becky Stewart.
Hanging on a wall in Stewart's classroom are photos of each group of students she's taught during her 11 years as a teacher. Some familiar faces came back Wednesday in the group of West High graduates, but Stewart wishes more were still in the picture.
"I know how much of a struggle it's been for a lot of them, and boy, they showed resiliency and tenacity, and they're going to go out there and do great things in the world," Stewart said. "I'm just really proud of them."
A similar scene unfolded Friday at Jackson Elementary School, where young students lined the hallways and cheered as West High seniors Alma Lopez, Dulce Hernandez and Marissa Bott walked in their graduation caps and gowns.
Homar Gosain, a sixth-grade teacher at the elementary, congratulated Lopez, a former student of his who plans to attend Weber State University next year to study dental hygienics.
"I'm so happy because I can see the harvest of her effort. I'm so happy for her," Gosain said. "It's a big deal."
The Salt Lake City School District enrolls one of the most ethnically diverse groups of students in the state. Almost 1 in 5 students there are learning English as a second language, and more than half of students in the district come from low-income families.
Those and other challenges make graduating high school an especially meaningful accomplishment for students there, according to Tamara Ramos, a West High senior who visited Northwest Middle School this week.
But inseparable from Ramos' own achievements, she said, are the supportive efforts of her peers, her teachers, her family — support that younger generations need to reach their own academic ambitions.
"I'm doing this because I want young kids to be inspired. It's a struggle for all of us, and we all come from different backgrounds, different families. We've all had our obstacles," Ramos said. "It's to prove it for me, to prove it for my family, to prove it for the kids and teachers — everyone can see what we became."