Against all odds, 27 alternative school students graduate
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The last time Daisha Matthews spoke with her father before he died at the end of 2018 was when he told her he will be “looking fly” in his suit at her high school graduation.
Through tears she said on Feb. 8 she believes he is proudly watching her alongside her mother, who died a month before Matthews transferred to ReNEW Accelerated High School.
“I did this for me, but I also did this for him and my mom. It was hard getting through it, but I did it,” Matthews said.
Matthews was speaking as she accepted a special award moments before she and 26 of her peers received their high school diplomas at Loyola University’s Roussel Hall. Orleans Parish School Board Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr. last December awarded the local ReNEW Schools organization a three-year charter renewal to operate the alternative school. He approved renewal for the “F″-rated school because it’s in “a totally different set of circumstances” from an average school, Lewis said Feb. 5.
Alternative sites serve students who either enroll there by choice after falling behind, or after being expelled from their home schools. Students in these programs could also be awaiting trial or are convicted of a crime. A report released by the Louisiana Department of Education in October 2017 found a disproportionate amount of black youth attend these schools due to high rates of expulsion and suspension among Louisiana’s black students.
More than 18,000 students in Louisiana are enrolled in one of more than 30 of the state’s alternative schools or 127 alternative programs, the report found. The report stressed that shortcomings in alternative education have resulted in students experiencing limited face-to-face teaching, a lack of appropriate technology, and a lack of career and technical options.
These statistics, however, didn’t dissuade the auditorium of more than 100 attendees from celebrating at ReNEW Accelerated’s graduation. The majority of its 233 students are black, and its total senior class size is 77, according to the latest enrollment data from the state Education Department.
“They call and consider us uneducated, black and ignorant, which is proven wrong through me and through all of us sitting here today,” said Joe’Najah Smith during her award acceptance speech. “How can we be uneducated and we are graduates?”
ReNEW’s valedictorian, Dakida Frank, told attendees she was kept back twice in school after being “failed by the system” before she failed again through her own actions. She nonetheless balanced her coursework and a job to earn college credits from Bard Early College.
ReNEW’s salutatorian, Quasjay Selders, called her high school years “a rollercoaster” after she was expelled for fighting in school. She eventually ended her junior year with a 4.0 grade point average, and this year she was accepted into the University of Holy Cross nursing program.
Graduates like Nichell Robinson balanced school with work, and she’s set to enroll at Delgado Community College in the fall. Terry Gerdes spent several semesters working for unCommon Construction to earn internship credits and scholarship money. One graduate’s blue cap had the words “LOL, BYE” inscribed in gold letters. Another graduate’s cap had the words “I winged it!” written in purple letters with a gold background and a sparkling stone border.
The diploma presentation occurred after former InspireNOLA Schools principal Angela Kinlaw delivered the keynote address. Kinlaw said she couldn’t participate in her 8th grade graduation ceremony because she was suspended before her promotion to high school.
The Take ’Em Down NOLA activist nonetheless succeeded academically and told the graduates they can overcome any challenges that feel impossible. The removal of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans illustrated that fact, she said.
“We are made up of those same things that made up those stars in the sky that shine brightly even in the darkest of night. We are those stars and we are brilliant,” Kinlaw said.
OPSB District 7 member Nolan Marshall, Jr. said prior to the event that he’s “always excited” about the “grit and perseverance” shown by the graduates after everything they’ve experienced. Although he retired from his photography business in 2013, Marshall could be seen taking pictures throughout the ceremony to document the moment.
“This to me is what we need to accomplish everywhere,” Marshall said.
Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com