Graduation Day: Bloomberg's Babies Grow Up

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Since September, City Limits has been meeting and following members of the high school class of 2013--the last graduating class of Mayor Bloomberg, who has presided over sweeping reforms of the school system.   Late last month, those students graduated, and a team of reporters led by Helen Zelon and including Leah Robinson, Tobias Salinger, Abigail Savitch-Lew and Sara Sugar watched them as they went from students to graduates.  At left, graduates at McKee Career and Technical High School toss their caps into the air. Principal Sharon Henry quoted a Japanese proverb, in saying that McKee grads

Photo by: Helen Zelon

Since September, City Limits has been meeting and following members of the high school class of 2013–the last graduating class of Mayor Bloomberg, who has presided over sweeping reforms of the school system. Late last month, those students graduated, and a team of reporters led by Helen Zelon and including Leah Robinson, Tobias Salinger, Abigail Savitch-Lew and Sara Sugar watched them as they went from students to graduates. At left, graduates at McKee Career and Technical High School toss their caps into the air. Principal Sharon Henry quoted a Japanese proverb, in saying that McKee grads “fall down seven times, get up eight.”

In late June, with temperatures pushing past 90 degrees, City Limits returned to the high schools we visited this past academic year, for graduation. Boys with fresh-waxed brows and girls with banana curls and high, high heels (along with the occasional pair of Doc Martens) strode across city stages to execute the famous shake-and-take: Shake with the right hand, take the diploma (or often, an empty case) with the left. Face front for the obligatory photo – many schools hire professional photographers to snap the moment for posterity – and often, pump a fist, throw a G-sign, shimmy through a dance move or simply hug a teacher one last time before Real Life begins.

Some of the seniors we met through the year were prime players at graduation: Keldwin Taveras was valedictorian of DreamYard Prep, where he won the school award for scholarship (“He made it look so easy,” DreamYard science teacher Brittany Walters said.) Taniah Horton won honors there, too, for her relentless pursuit of an advanced Regents diploma: She took the trigonometry Regents exam five times, Principal Alicia Wargo said, until she passed. But pass she did, and walk she did, too, across the stage to accept her Advanced Regents diploma – one of four the school awarded – nearly airborne in her elation.

Twelve years after they began their compulsory education – which commences by law, in New York, with first grade – the city's newest crop of seniors stood, walked, flipped their tassels from right to left and became, forever, high school graduates. Many planned to go on to college – some to 'name' schools like Skidmore, Brown, Smith and Tufts, others to trade and technical schools, city and state colleges, and small liberal-arts schools.

Statistics suggest that many, if not most, will not complete their Bachelors' degrees within the expected four years; only about 60 percent of undergrads do so, nationwide, and that figure drops to roughly 20 percent for students at CUNY schools. But on gradation day, the future held few shadows. All was bright and limitless. While many student speakers acknowledged the difficulties of their younger lives, at graduation, the only way to go was Up.

Common themes, different feels

Each school is a microcosm, with a singular culture, tone and vibe. Each school's graduation distilled that culture – from the pairs of white roses shared at Bronx Collegiate (students gave one rose to someone they wished to honor and kept the other) to the affectionate video profiles of all 27 DreamYard Prep graduates. The printed programs told a story, too: some covered in color-printed glossy cardstock, others a graphic color Xerox, or a single-color copy on a few folded sheets of blue paper, each seeming to reflect each school's resources and whether and where they can invest extra money in an ephemeral, if meaningful, artifact. Some listed honors and diploma levels – Regents or Advanced Regents or in some cases “Regents pending exam grade,” because many schools held graduation before state Regents exams were graded, leaving hundreds of students citywide in suspense as to whether they'd graduated or would attend summer school. Others listed colleges, scholarships, and myriad awards. Some simply listed names, as if to say, graduating in four years is prize enough.

At Telecommunications Arts High School's graduation, held in Bishop Ford High School's sweltering Brooklyn auditorium to accommodate a multigenerational, multilingual, overflow crowd where babies and school kids outnumbered Tele's 255 graduates, the whole faculty stood in force to cheer the Class of 2013.

Staten Island's St. George Theatre's rococo pomp and icebox-cool set the tone for McKee Career and Technical High School: Parents and students turned out in finery, to cheers – “that's my baby!” and paparazzi-dense scrums of smartphone photo-flashes. More than one student won money prizes for the tools of their prospective trade – three young construction workers were given complete sets of tools (in honor of a former teacher), and a stunned, happy Norberto “Bert” Martinez took the top prize, an oversize check for $2888, to cover “the cost of his tools,” from the head of Lincoln Tech, where he'll learn diesel come September.

Just before graduation, the city released test scores and 2012 graduation rates. Graduation rates stayed flat – no small triumph, given the increased rigor of high-school diploma requirements; in 2012, for the first time, all graduates were required to earn Regents diplomas, with scores of 65 or better on five state exams. While graduation rates have risen steadily across all ethnic groups during Bloomberg's tenure, Asian and white students continue to lead the ranks, with rates of 82 and 78 percent, respectively, compared to 59 and 58 percent for black and Hispanic students.

A higher percentage of those graduates were determined college- and career ready in 2012, but city and state calculations differed, reflecting a decade of conflicting data-crunching at Tweed and in Albany. According to the state, 34 percent of graduates are ready for college; according to the city, 44 percent are sufficiently prepared – but either way, the majority of New York City high school graduates are not. And the lion's share of the college-ready grads rise out of a distinct minority of city high schools.

Still, too many would-be graduates remained behind. Facing the 27 grads at DreamYard Prep from the Lovinger Theatre stage at Lehman College in the Bronx were 34 faculty; absent were the 50-plus students that were part of the graduates' ninth-grade cohort, either still in school, in transfer schools, or dropped out.

Hope, loss, and grit

More than one graduation included remembrances of students and teachers who had died. Lydia Villa, who won an arts award at DreamYard Prep, wrote her memorial on her orange-gold mortarboard: “Para Tio RIP: I know you're here with me always.” More than one speaker – principal, guest, or student – spoke of students' working their way up from the bottom.

After Ralph McKee's class of 2013 strode down the theatre's carpeted aisles, resplendent in their forest-green robes, Principal Sharon Henry greeted them and their audience effusively, then, quoting a Japanese proverb, she said McKee grads “fall down seven times, get up eight,” noting the triumphs of the school's sports teams – it shares athletics, from football to fencing, with the selective high school Staten Island Tech – and how “with [hurricane] Sandy, our world changed.” There were, she said, “months of recovery – we had to find the will to help,” with food drives, clothing drives, give-a-hug drives. (No students we spoke with had lost their home, but many spoke of properties badly damaged, of parents' jobs lost, of sheer destruction that amazed and frightened them.)

In the Bronx, Principal Wargo, suddenly tall on teal-blue shoes with clear Lucite heels, shared a cautionary tale: A DreamYard grad who left New York for college was shocked, she said, to discover himself the only student of color in his classes. (Of DreamYard's 318 students, 2 are white.) He was intimidated, Wargo said. “It was so different from the Bronx!” The boy didn't speak in a single class during his first semester of school, and had a hard time going back.

Wargo charged her Class of 2013, “Do not say nothing. That's not what we taught you. That's not who you are.” She went on: “You are beautiful. You are small but mighty. Do not be afraid to show people who you are.”

On her way to address her classmates at the High School for Public Service, salutatorian Idayat Ibrahim tottered to the podium, her long, black hair swinging. Her classmates screamed and clapped as she ascended; parents and teachers joined in, enthusiasm contagious.

“I am in the position I am today because I fought for what I wanted,” she said, in a voice as wobbly as her ankles. She conquered grave illness as a child, she said, and immigrated to the U.S. at age 5. When her speaking voice wavered again, she took a deep breath and began to sing, in a steady, clear alto.

“I'm better, so much better/ I'm a songbird,” she sang, as her friends sang softly from their seats. She wiped her eyes, and whispered, “I'm gonna miss you guys.”

Voices of experience

Every school marched in to the familiar strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” – mostly, canned (including an impromptu hum-along when the Bishop Ford sound system faltered) but played in earnest by the High School of Public Service band. HSPS' recessional broke with tradition – with Macklemore's “The Ceiling Can't Hold Us” – as did its guest speaker, Wingate '82 grad Shaun Shiller Fequiere, better known as the Kangol Kid.

Slightly daunted to learn that this was not, in fact, a Wingate High School graduation (Wingate was among the first wave of schools Bloomberg closed, and five new small schools were seeded into the large campus building), Fequiere continued undaunted: ‘I'm here because I'm you, in the future.” With a black cap, shades and a glittering ear stud, he related his successes – the first rapper to play the Apollo, the first Haitian hip-hop star, “before Wyclef!” – he adds, “In 30 years of hip-hop, I have never done any drugs whatsoever. I am proof it can be done.”

“I would've been voted least likely to succeed in high school,” Tracy Brown, McKee '92, told the class of 2013. Pregnant at 15, by 23, she was, she said “a single mom, divorced, and a John Jay dropout.” But commuting on the Staten Island ferry – Brown was raised in NYCHA's Mariner's Harbor Houses – to a job in Manhattan, Brown wrote her first novel in marble composition notebooks. Now eight books in and on Macmillan's “urban fiction” list, Brown says, “The girl who got whispered about in the hallways turned out to be the most successful in the class of '92.”

“Never give up,” she told the McKee grads. “Michael Jordan was cut from his school basketball team. Walt Disney was fired for not being creative enough. You started from the bottom. Now, you're here!”

More than one principal urged public service over self-interest. At Tele, Principal Phil Weinberg urged his graduates to practice Martin Luther King, Jr.'s “dangerous unselfishness. Start using the word ‘we' more than ‘I' or ‘me'.”