Yesterday afternoon I had the privilege of attending North Star Academy’s Senior Signing Day, the annual celebration when seniors reveal to their class — as well as younger high school students — where they are going to college.
North Star, part of the Uncommon Schools charter network, was just recognized in the U.S. News and World Report annual rankings as the 24th best public high school in New Jersey (based on student outcomes) and among the top 2.4% nationwide.
Among the eighty-one North Star seniors, 94% were accepted to at least one four-year college and 66% are first-generation college students, i.e., the first person in their families to attend college. Which colleges? The list is long and includes Davidson, Notre Dame, Brandeis, Bowdoin, Howard, NJ Institute of Technology, Emory, Pomona, George Washington, Rochester Institute of Technology, Swarthmore, the College of New Jersey, and Rutgers. Collectively these students, with the help of North Star’s College Completion Department, earned over $2 million in grants and scholarship. On average each student will take out a loan of $4,000 per year, half the national average. Thirteen percent were accepted to their first-choice college and one won the prestigious Posse Scholarship, which awards each winner $200,000.
But that’s just dry facts. It was an entirely different scene at North Star’s crowded gym on Central Avenue in Newark where high school students perched on seats and bleachers, each dressed in their North Star blue and black uniforms. Balloons bounced from each aisle, as buoyant as the kids. There was a drum roll. There was enthusiastic chanting, led by North Star’s Director of College Completion, Patrick Rametti, who called out, “Where are they headed?” “TO COLLEGE!,” four hundred scholars shouted back. “Where are they headed?” “TO COLLEGE!”
After a speech by a student selected by her peers (Torvianna Williams), each prospective college freshman marched up to to a podium erected in the front of the gym where a screen behind them projected a phrase describing that particular student’s strengths:
- “Always added humor to stressful days”
- “Has a keen sense of self-awareness”
- “Characterized by her emotional prowess as a thinker, writer, and orator”
- “Constantly challenges peers to be the best versions of themselves”
- “Known for her imagination and independence”
- “Known for his infectious positivity and intellectual courage”
Then each senior stood in front of their cheering schoolmates and exuberantly shouted into a microphone, “in four years I’ll be graduating from” (pause for dramatic effect) “Rochester Institute of Technology!” (Chikezie Anonyuo). “Rutgers!” (Samirah Anthony). “Wheaton!” (Stephon Yearty). “Pomona!” (Tahiv McGee). Bloomfield!” (Ijhane Muhammed). “Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute!” ( Kakinda Norris).
North Star is determined to defy the odds. The charter school’s enrollment is 86.3% Black (and 12% Latino); according to a recent Ed Trust report, Black students tend to graduate college at lower rates than their White, Asian, and Latino peers. But, then again, beating the odds is what Newark’s thriving charter school sector (dominated by Uncommon and KIPP) is all about. According to another report issued by the Center for Reinventing Public Education, the injection of school choice into this long-troubled school system has benefited all students and led to Newark’s designation as the best-performing urban district in the country.
The ceremony ended with North Star’s signature call and response, led by Mr. Rametti:
Leader: Who are you?
Students: A star! I shine brightly for others!
Leader: Why are you here?
Students: To get an education!
Leader: Why else?
Students: To be the great person I am meant to be!
Leader: And what will you have to do?
Students: Work hard! Work, work, work hard! Work Hard! Work, work, work hard!
Leader: What else do you have to do?
Students: Take care of each other!
Leader: And what will you need!
Students (stomping in unison): Self-discipline!
Students: To be the master of my own destiny!
Leader: What else will you need?
Students: Respect for me, my peers, my teachers, and all people!
Leaders: Where are you headed?
Students: To college!
Leader: And will you succeed?
Leader: And when you succeed, what will you do?
Students: Change history and give back to others!
Leader: What are we?
Students: A community!
Leader: What are we?
Students: A community!:
A community, indeed.