Kiara Damon first started thinking about college when she entered fifth grade at Williamsburg Collegiate Middle School, a Brooklyn charter school run by the Uncommon Schools network.
“It was always college, college, college,” Kiara said. “We were always the class of 2021, not the class of 2017.”
Kira was one of 87 graduating seniors from Uncommon Charter High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant who took part in a college signing day event last month designed to celebrate the academic achievements of the Class of 2017.
Or as Uncommon would describe them, the Class of 2021, the year these students will – emphasis on the word “will” – graduate from college. The two-hour rally for the students was even covered by the local CBS news station.
New York high schools are increasingly holding end-of-year college signing ceremonies, which borrow heavily from more traditional NCAA signing events, when student-athletes announce their Division 1 college choice.
In New York City, 282 public schools registered for “College Decision Day” this year, nearly triple last year’s 100 schools. This includes 79 schools in Brooklyn, according to Kings County Politics.
Achievement First recently held the last of its three NYC Senior Signing Days, one at each of their full-sized high schools. Students declared their final decisions for colleges, which included Princeton University, New York University, Yale University, Smith College, Johns Hopkins University, Bowdoin College, Middlebury College, Wesleyan University and many CUNY and SUNY campuses across the city and state.
AF student speakers shared stories of how far they’ve come and what they hope to do next. “We are ready to be the protagonists in our story,” senior Emmanuel Rowland told the crowd. “Today, my story changes. In the fall of 2017, I am putting pen to paper to begin writing my next chapter at Carleton College.”
AF’s Tagmy Castillo wants to be a role model and proof point: “As one of the first in my family to go to college, I want to be an inspiration for my brothers to look up to. I will not be a negative statistic; I will be a positive one.” She’s bound for John Jay
At Uncommon Charter High School, 100 percent of the graduating class is planning to attend college in the fall. The class of 2017 earned more than $1.5 million in scholarships.
On Thursday, each graduating Uncommon senior walked — or danced — across the stage in the high school auditorium, unfurled a shirt a banner or a backpack from their college, and announced their choice.
The audience, made up of fellow graduates, underclassmen, teachers and family, didn’t just applaud politely after each announcement. They cheered loudly and enthusiastically for each and every student, often jumping out of their seats to dance with the graduate for a few seconds as the DJ blared the students’ favorite song.
“This day didn’t just happen for these student by some stroke of luck,” said Uncommon Charter High School Principal Thomas O’Brien. “Every member of this graduating class worked extraordinarily hard to get to this point in their academic journey. They deserve this day.”
Uncommon Charter High School is part of Uncommon Schools’ network of 22 schools in Brooklyn serving over 7,500 students. Uncommon Collegiate, its sister school in Brooklyn, held its senior signing day last Thursday.
Going to college may not seem like the biggest of deals these days, but it remains an all too elusive goal for many public high school students in urban areas.
And even for those who get there, actually graduating from college is not guaranteed. Fewer than 15% of students in the lowest income quartile in the U.S. graduate from a four-year college, compared with 77% of students in the top-income quartile. About 82% of Uncommon students have either graduated or are on track to graduate from college.
Kiara, who is headed to Lehigh University in the fall, said going to Uncommon since fifth grade made her believe that college was always in reach.
“At the end of the day, the goal was to make it to and through college,” said Kiara, who grew up in Bedford Stuyvesant.
Cassandra Fleurelus, who is headed to George Washington University to major in biology, hopes to get into pharmaceutical research after she graduates.
The 18 year old, whose mother is from Haiti, said English was not her first language. She did not even learn to speak English until preschool. In first grade, she said she was diagnosed with ADHD. Her school at the time did not provide her with much support, she said.
In fifth grade, her mom discovered Kings Collegiate, another middle school run by Uncommon.
“I remember after my first day, I came home and cried,” Cassandra said. “It was so difficult. I didn’t know how I was going to deal with all the work. But I learned how to cope with my disability without using it as an excuse.”
Cassandra said she initially had reservations about continuing with Uncommon for high school, but she realized that she was never going to get the kind of support she needed at any other school.
“I know people who had to pay for therapy and tutoring,” she said. “I am fortunate that I did not have to go out of my way to find support. I had all the support I needed in my high school.”
In her junior year, her teachers suggested she apply for the Applied Research Innovations in Science and Engineering program at New York University designed for talented New York City high school sophomores and juniors.
“I owe that to Uncommon for pushing me,” Cassandra said. “The NYU program made me want to go into pharmaceutical research.”
Josh Morrison, who is attending Saint Lawrence University in the fall, credits Uncommon with helping him achieve his goal of attending a four-year college on a full scholarship.
Morrison, who grew up in Canarsie, said he always believed he would go to college even though college wasn’t something that many of his friends from the neighborhood were thinking about.
“My academic career would have ended at an associates degree,” he said. “I think Uncommon was a big factor in making me realize I could get a four-year degree.”
— Laura Waters
Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for NJ Left Behind, New York School Talk, Education Post, and other publications. She was a school board member in Lawrence Township (Mercer County) for 12 years and served nine years as president.
This first appeared on New York School Talk.