Schenectady High School’s senior class has a voice. And its members have used it.
They used it to get prom moved so it didn’t conflict with Ramadan; they used it to demand more new classes; they used it to defend themselves against racial slurs; they used it to cheer on one another and to debate one another.
On Wednesday morning, the seniors used their collective voice one last time to celebrate and reflect on their four years in high school – four years that culminated in the school’s highest graduation rate in over a decade.
“I wish that everyone of us could come up on stage and speak today,” Julia Smith, salutatorian of the graduating class, said during her commencement speech. “I know we all have worlds to share.”
Smith reflected on experiences she has had with classmates over the years – both small and big, experiences with close friends and those with people whose names she never learned. She thanked a student who spread kindness through a simple act, by bringing a smile to her face most mornings by giving her and other students a fist bump on the way into the school.
“He never told me his name,” Smith said of the fist bumper.
She applauded her classmates who are “silly, creative, kind people who help make the world a better place” through even the smallest of gestures that can make someone’s day. Smith first joined Schenectady schools in ninth grade, entering a new world she wasn’t sure she was fully prepared for. During one of those first days at school, she encountered a stranger who handed her a paper crane they had made by hand. Smith held onto that crane all four years of high school – a reminder that her classmates cared for her even they didn’t know her.
“I didn’t know how important this community would be to me,” Smith said Wednesday, pulling the small origami crane from her pocket. “All I knew was someone handed me this paper crane. I can’t make a paper crane, but there are people at Schenectady High School who can.”
The school’s 501 graduates Wednesday morning brought the school its highest graduation rate in 12 years: 67 percent. That’s up from 59 percent last June. And Superintendent Larry Spring on Tuesday said the school’s freshmen, sophomores and juniors this school year earned more credits and failed fewer courses than their counterparts in recent years, suggesting a positive trajectory for the graduation rate over the coming years.
But Wednesday was about the Class of 2019 – and their voices.
“I have confidence you will embrace your responsibility to change the world and you will use your voice to change the world,” Spring told the graduates.
At 9 a.m. sharp, the roll of a snare drum and the howl of bagpipes ushered in the commencement ceremony’s slow procession – first of district administrators, school board members, and high school leaders, followed by waves of students clad in red and blue gowns.
The students, always expressing themselves, showed off a sea of decorative graduation caps. The designs ranged from a simple border of paper flowers around the edge of the cap to an entire bouquet of flowers cascading down from the cap. The caps were adorned with careful lettering, stars and glitter and ribbons; one was complete with baby pictures.
A video played on a large screen above center stage shortly before the students entered the theater. Students in the video outlined their plans for after graduation. Some are joining the military, some are headed to work and many are headed to college.
“When I look at you, I look at you with amazement and admiration,” High School Principal Diane Wilkinson told the graduates. “You have revolutionized the manner in which you advocate for change and in that vein ultimately the decision of Schenectady (school district).”
She told the students that through their advocacy and activism they had changed Schenectady High School and her own approach to truly listening to and hearing students. She said their duty to express themselves doesn’t stop after graduation.
“Your voice matters and still needs to be heard,” she said. “That does not change when you cross this stage.”
Andre “MoDre” Brown – a 2007 Schenectady High School graduate and accomplished musician who has performed around the world – shared a similar message with the graduates, urging them to dream big, because those dreams might just come true.
He talked about the challenges he faced growing up in Schenectady, an absent father and drug-addicted mother, and how he moved into a study apartment on his own at 16 years old. He stepped past drug dealers and drug addicts on his way to school. He said he watched too many “gifted individuals see life slip through their fingers.” He used those experiences to motivate himself.
“Seeing these types of things were a big part of my personal motivation and desire to do the best I could,” Brown said.
But he also remembered how Schenectady High School was a place that fostered his independence, confidence and passion for music. He thanked former teachers in person from the stage at Proctors as he recounted activities that engaged and deepened his interest and skill in music, starting a gospel choir and steel drum band while in high school. At times, Brown said, some of those teachers and supporters had more faith in his ability to succeed than he did. “‘You’ve got more inside of you than you know kid,’” Brown said of the implicit message often shared with him.
He took that message to heart and implored the graduates to do the same: reflect on the challenges they overcame on their way to graduate and not forget that they accomplished their goal.
“For some of you this might not have even seemed possible a few months ago, some of you had to fight to get here, some of you considered giving up – that was me,” he said. “Let this be a constant reminder of your strength.”