Unsurprisingly for a school that prides itself on taking students on trips in four continents before graduation, Democracy Prep Charter High School covered a lot of ground in its first commencement.
The three-hour ceremony, held Monday at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, featured accolades for the 46 graduating seniors, a ceremonial passing of the hat for the charter network’s founder, and a video screening by the secretary general of the United Nations.
Ban Ki-Moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, delivered the keynote address. After speaking about the value of good education, he told graduates he has “always dreamed of appearing live at the Apollo,” then whipped out a music video of Beyonce singing in a U.N. music video.
The video was a humorous interlude in a ceremony packed with pomp and circumstance. Graduates wore yellow caps and gowns to reflect the school’s colors, and after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, they and everyone in the audience were were instructed to “place your hands over your logos” to recite the Democracy Prep pledge, which begins, “I pledge allegiance to my future …”
That future is different from what it would have been had the students not attended Democracy Prep for middle and high school, school officials said during the graduation ceremony. In one video shown at the event, a senior said many of her classmates from elementary school are not graduating from high school now, and she credited Democracy Prep for making the difference for her.
Of the 80 students who entered the high school in 2009, all from Democracy Prep middle schools, 46 students graduated on Monday, each with acceptances to four-year colleges in hand. School officials could not immediately say what happened to the other 34 students who entered four years ago but said some remained enrolled at the school while others had transferred away.
The seniors are not the only ones moving on. It was also a big day for the network’s founding chief executive officer, Seth Andrew, as he handed over the reins — in the form of his hallmark yellow cap — to Katie Duffy, who will serve as the network’s new leader. When this year’s graduates decided to attend Democracy Prep, Andrew said, “there was no school, there was no building.” Today the network’s schools serve 1,600 students.
Andrew is now preparing to launch Alumni Revolution, a new nonprofit designed to support first-generation college students through college.
The challenge of making the transition from a small, tight-knit high school to the wider world of college was a major theme of the graduation ceremony.
Sixth-grader Kaity Fernandez explained that she and the other non-seniors at the graduation had earned their seats through good behavior. Students have to earn their seats in the classroom as well, a tradition referenced more than once during graduation speeches.
“We don’t run the school like a democracy, we prepare you for one,” Andrew told the graduates.
“As you graduate our relationship will change,” English teacher Damion Clark told the graduates. “After today we are fellow adults, colleagues.”
Graduates said that’s exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. Geneses Bello, who’s headed to McDaniel College in Maryland next year, said she is anxious about losing the structure and support that Democracy Prep provides.
“I’m nervous about time management, not having the support system I have here, and being on my own,” she said.
Several juniors said that seeing the seniors makes them more excited to be seniors and go to college. But sixth graders, wowed by the Apollo, said it’s hard to imagine being as independent as the seniors will have to be next year.
“Now if you need help they’re going to come and tutor you,” Michael Jones explained. “And they ask questions to see if you’re getting the train of thought. In sixth grade they tell you what to do and how to do it. When you get to college you have to figure it out on your own.”
Already, Democracy Prep’s first set of graduates are taking advantage of their new authority. The student graduation speaker, Steven Medina, who will attend Middlebury College on a full scholarship next year, said Andrew had broken one promise that he made to the founding class: When they were in middle school, Medina recalled, Andrew had promised students a Snapple machine if they earned it, and the machine never materialized.
Later, Andrew made good on his promise by rolling out tables laden with bottles of Snapples for the graduation class, who were grateful for a drink on the hottest day yet this year.