Six pairs of shoes and four years later, Jakeyla Brooks graduated as valedictorian of the Class of 2018 at Ballou Senior High in Southeast Washington.
“The sky’s the limit now,” Jeffrey Brooks said.
And on graduation day, a Brooks cheering squad a dozen strong crammed into the gymnasium bleachers to witness a moment they’d all worked toward for 18 years.
When Jakeyla’s name was announced at Monday’s graduation ceremony, Bernice Brooks stood up, stomped her feet on the bleachers, shouted and waved a 14-inch photo of her youngest child’s face.
This was a moment that had escaped Bernice Brooks two decades earlier: She dropped out of a D.C. high school as a teenage mother.
The ceremony capped a tumultuous year for a school at the epicenter of a citywide
graduation scandal. A city-
commissioned investigation in January found that 1 of every 3 graduates from D.C. Public Schools last year received their diplomas despite missing too many classes or improperly taking makeup courses.
At Ballou, a school that draws from some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, about 35 percent of 2017 graduates missed more than half the school year.
The school quickly became shorthand for all the woes that plague the District’s education system.
But on graduation day, the Ballou community wanted everyone to know that they believe the negative portrayal of the school is unfair. It’s students such as Jakeyla, they said, who reflect the school.
Ballou, they said, deserves to be celebrated. The 133 students who made it to the graduation stage — representing about 50 percent of the senior class, officials said — deserve to be recognized for the challenges they faced to achieve this much. Jakeyla said in her valedictorian speech that the school should focus on the good, and she gave thanks to the school’s former principal, Yetunde Reeves, for challenging Ballou “to be better.” Reeves was placed on administrative leave after the District’s investigation into graduation policies.
“There are so many stereotypes about Ballou, like faking the grade,” Jakeyla said in her speech, referring to media reports after the investigation that questioned whether D.C. students rightfully earned their grades. “But they never point out all the good the school has done, or mention that we are bold, outstanding and courageous.”
Jakeyla often minimizes the hard work it took to graduate at the top of her class.
She said she simply showed up to class, paid attention, did her work and earned straight A’s. But Jakeyla’s classmates, teachers and family say it took more grit than that.
Jakeyla, they said, was unflappable and focused throughout the inevitable distractions of high school and learned how to accept help.
Angela Richmond, a Ballou history teacher, said she could always call on Jakeyla to answer a question correctly. That was true, teachers said, even when other students were misbehaving.
Jakeyla’s best friend, Samiyah Zeigler — also a 2018 Ballou graduate — said Jakeyla is known as the brainiac on campus. Her classmates often swarmed her for help with math homework, the valedictorian’s best subject, and Jakeyla happily obliged, hoping to lift them up with her.
“She’s known as the smart one in the building,” Samiyah said. “She gives people a lot of hope.”
Throughout her years at Ballou, Jakeyla tutored children in reading at a nearby elementary school — and her boss there said she displayed a level of patience and kindness that is unusual for a high school student. Mark Hecker, executive director of Reach, a nonprofit group that hires older students to tutor younger ones, recalled watching Jakeyla contend with misbehaving youngsters. “I’ll wait,” she would tell them.
Jakeyla’s mother, Bernice, raised three older daughters who have graduated from high school in the past five years (two from Ballou, one from Anacostia High). But Jakeyla, donning multiple honorary cords around her graduation gown, could become the first member of the Brooks family to receive a college diploma.
The youngest Brooks daughter is off to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in August. She has collected more than $10,000 in merit scholarships so far.
“I’m so excited. It means a lot to me,” said Bernice Brooks, a day-care worker who received her high school diploma from Ballou’s alternative school in 2006 to set an example for her four daughters. She had dropped out in the late 1990s.
Jakeyla said she matured and became more confident in high school and is now thinking about how she can improve her community. She wants to be a financial adviser to help people living in poverty better their circumstances.
“Budgeting money needs to be a top priority,” she said. “I want to help people. I want to help my community.”
But before that, Jakeyla knows that challenges and more rigorous classes await her in college. She said she’s aware that in college, she will no longer receive makeup work or extra help if she struggles on assignments. Being smart won’t be enough. One of her sisters was a top student in high school and enrolled in college but dropped out — a common occurrence among students entering college from high-
Jakeyla wasn’t focused on that, though, on graduation day. It was celebration time for the Brooks family. Her sisters purchased glitter and glue to help Jakeyla decorate her graduation mortarboard.
Her oldest sister, Ayana Brooks, carefully crammed 19 sparkly letters onto the graduation cap to commemorate the youngest of four sisters’ graduation.
“Saved the best for last,” it read.