King said she used to have "a bad attitude. . . . I got D's." After joining the I Can End Truancy - ICE-T - program at the start of the school year, she began getting B's in most of her classes, she said.
Maria Medina, a Creative Arts freshman, had similar praise.
"Before the program, school was somewhere I would go for a couple hours . . . talk to my friends," Medina said. "Now I'm thinking what college I'm going to."
In addition to the plaques they received Wednesday, the students got a bag of school supplies and a voucher that will pay for three sets of school uniforms. Students who attended the program will also soon get up to $400, depending on their attendance record.
ICE-T formally ended Sept. 30, but school, city, and law enforcement officials who collaborated in creating it hope the students who enrolled in it will continue to feel pressure not to fall back into truancy.
The program, funded by the county prosecutor's office with $63,000 in state grant money, essentially required the students not to skip school and to attend after-school sessions where they were taught anger-management and conflict-resolution skills, and received homework help.
It got off to a bumpy start, however, as school board officials and members of City Council complained they had not been consulted. When council refused to approve the plan, it fell to the prosecutor's office to directly handle the budget.
Though city officials said the students had to attend classes as well as the after-school sessions to qualify for the awards, the prosecutor's office said attendance at sessions was the only criterion.
"We have no idea what their school attendance is," spokesman Jason Laughlin said.
The youths are expected to receive their stipends Nov. 4, Laughlin said.
The program coordinator, Wren Ingram, said Wednesday that she had yet to be paid.
"I've been generous with my time, but I can't continue to give away everything," said Ingram, who is now unemployed and is owed $5,000. "There wasn't any confirmation of further funding."
When the program started Aug. 23, council members said they learned of it through news media.
Initially, the plan was to award each of the participating students $600, but after some council members opposed such cash awards, $200 of the amount was diverted to buying uniforms for the students.
Only 28 of the students attended every ICE-T session and will get the full $400. The others will get smaller amounts, depending on their attendance at the sessions, which were generally held three days a week.
Sylvia Hill, mother of Kevin Thomas, a ninth grader at Camden High School, said the program had paid off for him.
"He used to be outside smoking and drinking, and now he's more focused," she said.
At Wednesday's ceremony, County Prosecutor Warren W. Faulk reminded the students that even though they would no longer be attending the after-school meetings, their progress and attendance in school would be tracked.
"It's not over. There's going to be follow-up on this," he told the youths.
The success of the program will be measured later in the school year, when school-attendance records can be compared, Faulk said. "The important thing was to complete the program," he said.
The city Department of Human Services will track the students' attendance, city officials said.
In a final bit of drama, Wednesday's celebration had to be funded through private donations after the state refused to allow use of its grant money for the festivities.
Contact staff writer Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @InqCVargas on Twitter.