Chancellor Kaya Henderson honors top D.C. graduates, hopes to start tradition

June 18, 2013

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson hosted dozens of the city’s top graduating seniors at a luncheon Tuesday, inaugurating what she hopes will become an annual tradition of honoring outstanding students as they head off to college.

“There are a lot of people who don’t think that great things come out of DCPS,” Henderson told the teens, who lunched at a Verizon Center restaurant overlooking the arena. “We expect that you will prove to the world that the public school system in the nation’s capital turns out some of the most amazing people in the world.”

The seniors included valedictorians, salutatorians, athletes and most-improved students from the city’s 17 traditional high schools. They are bound for universities including Columbia, Georgetown, Penn State, Trinity, Carnegie Mellon and Sewanee. And though they know the transition to college can be tough, they are determined to succeed.

“I’m looking forward to making a better life,” said Alijauan Jahleal Epps, a graduate of H.D. Woodson High who won a scholarship to attend Bowie State University next fall.

Epps said he was less than focused on academics when he first arrived at Woodson, building a record of poor attendance and frequent suspensions. But that changed as teachers and other faculty convinced him that he had potential, he said. Epps made the honor roll for his last three semesters.

Named the most-improved senior at Woodson, he aims to own a business someday.

“High school graduation is just a stepping stone,” Epps said. “College graduation is always what I was looking forward to. I want to teach people that anyone can make it coming from DCPS.”

The leap from high school to college can be jarring for many, especially for first-generation college students or those from low-income families. In the District, nearly two-thirds of graduates enroll in college, but fewer than four in 10 graduate within five years.

Henderson said she considered asking celebrities to address students Tuesday, but she instead invited two D.C. public schools alumni who went on to build successful careers in college and beyond. “If they can do it, you can do it,” Henderson said.

Dontrell A. Smith was the youngest of six children raised by a single mother in the District. Their house burned down when he was in kindergarten, and the family was temporarily homeless. Yet his mother remained committed to her children and their education, and Smith resolved early on that he would go to college.

After graduating from Wilson High in 2006, he chose Howard University.

The day he moved into his freshman dorm, he learned he would become a father.

An unwed African American 18-year-old from the District, now with a baby on the way, “the odds were against me,” Smith said.

He thought often about giving up and dropping out. But he wouldn’t let himself. Four years later, he graduated from Howard and went on to earn a master’s degree in business administration.

He’s now 24 and lives in a four-bedroom house with his son, he said. He drives a brand-new car and makes “a nice amount of money” working as an accountant for the Census Bureau.

“Believe in yourself and all that you are,” Smith said. “Know that there is something inside you that is greater than any obstacle.”

Cato June — a graduate of Anacostia High who played football at the University of Michigan, won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts and returned to coach at Anacostia — also warned of the challenges ahead. A few months into the first semester, he predicted, many students would call home wanting to transfer schools or leave altogether.

“That’s just part of it, because it’s tough,” June said.

But college is also an incredible opportunity to learn and grow, he said.

“You won’t realize how awesome it is until you leave,” June said. “Enjoy it, because I promise you, it will be over before you know it.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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