The proudest day in Emric Howard’s high school career came months after he received his diploma.

That’s when the Brooklyn Center 19-year-old finally got to don a black graduation gown and cap in front of his family and probation officer to celebrate getting his diploma at a juvenile residential treatment center earlier this year.

About 70 peers from Minneapolis and west metro suburbs who are teen parents, are in foster care or on probation joined him at the special graduation ceremony started by Hennepin County social workers four years ago. The ceremony is not to hand out diplomas — those come from the schools — but to publicly commend county-involved youth for graduating high school or earning a GED.

“This is just the start for me,” Howard said.

In a room packed with about 300 family members and county employees last week, the graduates represented nearly 200 teens and young adults who receive Hennepin County services and earned their diploma or GED this year. Former longtime social worker Pam Russ started the special ceremony, realizing that social workers and probation officers can’t just be there to help them tackle their clients’ problems. They also need to honor their successes.

“It’s a philosophy of looking at their strengths,” she said.

In Hennepin County, the number of teens and children in foster care has soared in recent years. Meanwhile, the number of teen girls giving birth has declined over an eight-year period, and the number of juveniles on probation has also decreased.

Some of these teens and young adults have been homeless. Many are poor. What they share, statistically, is the unlikelihood of ever earning a high school diploma.

According to a 2014 Hennepin County study, only 30 percent of county-involved youth go on to graduate from high school — well below the countywide graduation rate of 70 percent. Among county-involved youth, foster care teens are the most likely to graduate, with 51 percent matriculating compared to 25 percent of those on probation and 32 percent of teen parents.

Tamia Stevenson, 18, of Inver Grove Heights, is in foster care and was behind in school before she realized she wanted to get her degree so she could move on in life, work full time and find her own place.

“I didn’t want to be that person in high school forever,” she said.

A special ceremony

On Friday, “Pomp and Circumstance” played as the smiling young adults walked across a stage, shaking hands with county leaders as they got a certificate.

“This graduation is more of a recognition of what we’ve overcome … just to show people we can do good things,” said Chris Davis, 18, of Minneapolis.

Davis spent nearly a year and a half in juvenile detention and at a Duluth juvenile residential treatment center for a drive-by shooting. But it was there he said he learned life skills and anger management and caught up on high school credits.

“It was a wake-up; it was just time to think,” he said. “Sometimes we need the intervention of the county.”

He will graduate Friday from PYC Arts & Tech High School in Minneapolis and plans to study business management in community college.

“They’re more than their crime,” said Sarah Erickson, Davis’ probation officer. “This is a chance for them to celebrate and feel good about themselves. So many of these kids have so much potential, but they don’t see it.”

In fact, for Davis and others, Friday’s event was the first time they’ve been recognized for something positive. Others were the first in their family to graduate from high school or to go on to college.

‘A blessing in disguise’

Some, like Howard, have bounced between schools.

At 14, he started getting in fights at school, smoking marijuana and skipping homework. The teen, who was born in Liberia and moved to the U.S. when he was 5, got his first criminal conviction at 15 for possessing a gun.

After injuring and robbing a drug dealer, Howard was sent to Hennepin County’s juvenile detention center before going to Woodland Hills, a juvenile facility in Duluth.

“Little did I know that would be a blessing in disguise,” he said. “It gave me time to think about what I wanted to do.”

Howard said he was told repeatedly that he had more potential. He started to believe it.

He had half the 22 high school credits needed to graduate — and within nine months, he had caught up.

“We have enough kids who can’t make it to that point,” said his probation officer, Mark Joseph.

Howard fell into old habits when he returned home and spent his 19th birthday in the county’s juvenile detention center. That, he said, was the last straw he needed to start over. He landed a construction job and now plans to go to community college, aspiring to one day run his own business.

Five years ago, he said, he wasn’t even thinking about graduating from high school. Now, he said, “I know there’s going to be more obstacles, but I’m just going to persevere.”