Nina Payne just graduated from Phelps ACE High School in the District. She received a fellowship that will allow her do a gap year in Ecuador. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

They are already activists, nonprofit leaders and world travelers. They have collected acceptance letters to prestigious universities, signed commitment letters to start jobs in the coming weeks and enrolled in academies to become police officers and firefighters.

They are teenagers and adults who took different paths to reach the graduation stage, immigrants and third- and fourth-generation Washingtonians.

They have aspirations they think can change the world, and after receiving their diplomas this month, the District’s Class of 2019 is closer to making that happen.

“My dream job is to be an astronaut,” said Kevin Akers, a 16-year-old who graduated from School Without Walls.

“A computer scientist,” said Aaron Spruill, valedictorian at Friendship Public Charter ­School-Collegiate Academy. “It’s a whole world out there. Coding relates to pretty much everything.”

“I’ve always wanted to be a neurosurgeon,” said Rachel Clark, who graduated from National Collegiate Preparatory Public Charter High School.

The District graduated thousands of seniors from more than 30 traditional public and charter high schools this month. There are about 4,300 seniors in the Class of 2019.

D.C. Public Schools said it has not crunched final numbers but expects the graduation rate to be similar to last year’s. In June 2018, nearly 60 percent of seniors received their diplomas, and more crossed the stage after taking summer courses. The charter sector, which educates almost half of public school students in the District, also has not tallied graduation numbers.

The school system is still recovering from the fallout of a 2018 city investigation that found that 1 of every 3 2017 graduates missed too many classes or improperly took makeup courses, undermining the validity of hundreds of diplomas.

Lewis D. Ferebee marked his first graduation season as D.C. schools chancellor, delivering remarks at six commencement ceremonies. In an interview, he said school system lapses that enabled truant students to receive their diplomas in 2017 have been corrected.

“We have tightened up a lot of procedures and monitoring to ensure that they have earned their diplomas,” he said. “We have great confidence in the Class of 2019 that walked across the stage.”

Ferebee, who arrived in the District this year after leading the public schools in Indianapolis, said he is amazed by how many local and national organizations have invested in the graduating class through college scholarships. He said students are concerned about being able to afford to live in their increasingly expensive hometown upon college graduation. Earning a scholarship should make that more feasible because students will leave college with less debt.

“The number of organizations that are investing in our high­er-education experience has been like nothing I have experienced before,” he said. “Many of them won’t carry the burden of college debt, and that’s something I think about.”

Akers, the aspiring astronaut, plans to attend the University of Massachusetts at Lowell with his tuition covered by scholarships. The teenager created a nonprofit organization, STEM for the Streets, in high school to expose students of color to the sciences. The group connects students with science professionals and holds monthly meetings to discuss career paths over dinner.

His scholarship will cover five years of education, so he wants to get a master’s degree and then return to the District.

“These long-lasting mentorships have meant the world in my life. I want to do the same for other kids,” Akers said. “This is my city. I was born here, and I plan to come back.”


Aaron Spruill is the valedictorian at Friendship Public Charter School and won the prestigious Gates Scholarship. In the fall he will attend Duke University on a full ride. (Photo by Marlena Sloss/The Washington Post)

Spruill, the Friendship valedictorian and student government president, is a Gates Millennium Scholar, a program that awards scholarships to students of color who have financial need. He is a competitive student, but school leaders also described him as generous and encouraging to his peers.

Spruill is following in the footsteps of three older siblings, one of whom graduated from Princeton University last year.

“Nothing was ever forced on us, and they always asked us to do the best we can,” said Spruill, who expects to attend Duke University with a full scholarship in the fall. “And that’s what we did.”

Ferebee said one of his main goals as chancellor is to ensure that students are also prepared for careers so that graduates who choose to start working right away still have viable paths.

James Payz, a graduate of Cardozo Education Campus, completed a pre-apprenticeship program during high school and plans to join Finishing Trades Institute as a glazier, learning to work with glass and install windows.

Once he completes the apprenticeship, he will become a journeyman in the trade.

“I wasn’t just thinking about myself, but about my family, too,” Payz said. “They have a lot of benefits, not just for now, but in retirement, too. So, I’m in it for the long run.”

Hundreds of students in the Class of 2019 have traveled to foreign countries through the school system’s study-abroad program.

Nina Payne, who graduated from Phelps ACE High School, spent about a week with a host family in Peru her junior year. It was her first time out of the country and her second time on a plane. She caught the travel bug and is determined to speak Spanish fluently.

Before she attends college, she plans to take a gap year in Ecuador through Global Citizen Year, a fellowship that has teamed with the school system to provide graduates with leadership training abroad.

Payne, who dreams of a career in international business, is slated to stay with a host family in Ecuador and work in a school or hospital. After that, she plans to enroll at Old Dominion University in Virginia.

“If I hadn’t gone to Peru, I would never have thought of doing a gap year,” Payne said. “This will help me to be more independent, and going from high school to college could have been overwhelming.”

Like many of the graduating seniors, Spruill said the mentorships and programs he participated in helped chart the promising path he is on. So upon graduation, he intends to give others the same boost.

He said he hopes to start a technology company and create an app that will teach people in low-income communities how to be smart with their money.

“It’s an important piece of breaking the cycles of poverty,” said Spruill, who lives in Southeast Washington. “I want to work in similar communities and eventually work on the national level so I can help more people at the same time.”