After each honoree at Total Sunshine, Inc. (TSI)’s annual school grade rewards ceremony last week revealed their college plans, executive director and founder Merilyn Holmes smiled, firmly shook their hand and chanted “First, not last!” as friends, family and community members applauded the District’s top high school graduates.
For the 10th consecutive year, TSI, a Southeast-based education nonprofit, sent D.C.’s public and charter high school valedictorians and salutatorians off to the next chapter of their academic journey with essential technology and words of wisdom from local education officials, parents, and community leaders who encouraged them to continue working toward their goals.
“You’re not alone. You’ll make mistakes but keep pushing,” Karen Williams, president of the D.C. State Board of Education (SBOE), told more than two dozen valedictorians and salutatorians in her keynote address on June 14. In her remarks, Williams, an alumna of The George Washington University in Northwest, alluded to challenges she faced as a Black student on a predominately white campus.
Williams, Ward 7 SBOE representative since 2012, also acknowledged TSI’s decadelong service to young people.
“I met Merilyn when I was first elected to the state board,” Williams said. “I found out about what she did, how she did it and her goals. I persevered and made it to this point today. I want you to support yourself, because you made it this far.”
Other speakers included Denise Rolark Barnes, publisher and CEO of The Washington Informer, who also served as the mistress of ceremonies. Porter Lawson, chaplain of D.C. Fire and EMS Department opened and closed the two-hour ceremony with a word of prayer. In lieu of their physical attendance, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and Johnnie Scott-Rice, vice chair of the D.C. metro chapter of the National Congress of Black Women, sent congratulatory letters.
The Woodland Tiger Pretty Dancers, a youth dance ensemble from Woodland Terrace in Southeast, also performed a synchronized routine to Le’andria Johnson’s “Better Days.”
That evening, supporters and onlookers with phones, cameras, balloons, and signs converged on a large meeting room in the west wing of the D.C. Department of Employment Services in Northeast, where they cheered on nearly 30 students representing a dozen D.C. public and charter schools.
The honorees, donning their graduation cap and gowns along with medals and multicolor tassels, sat toward the front of the auditorium where they watched speakers dole out a book of poetry, announced financial assistance from TSI and the William O. Lockridge Community Foundation, and gave raffle prizes to parents.
“Access to technology helps students succeed,” Holmes, standing behind a podium, told audience members on Thursday before graduates received eight-inch tablets with Windows 10 software that would make the device more suitable for schoolwork. “If you have a laptop, this could back it up if anything happens. If you don’t have a laptop, you could use it.”
Holmes, who remained upbeat throughout the evening, also memorialized James Perkins, Johnson Middle School’s 2009 salutatorian who lost his life weeks before the inaugural TSI graduation ceremony would take place. Perkins’ parents, who would later assist TSI in its endeavors, joined Holmes at the front of the auditorium as they announced the James Maurice Perkins Memorial Fund.
Guests later joined Holmes and the Perkins family in a moment of silence for Perkins, known to friends and family as Lil’ James, and Marlena Jackson, Holmes’ late younger sister and author of TSI’s trademark song who died in 2015.
In the spirit of honoring Perkins and Jackson’s memories, and being an example to their peers who struggle in school, speakers encouraged the graduates to lead by example and tell their stories of success.
For Cheraine Pugh, who graduated as her class’s salutatorian at Ballou Senior High School in Southeast this year, maintaining her individuality remained key in reaching her goals.
“I’ve always aimed for straight A’s,” Cheraine told The Informer. “The challenge was staying focused, but I managed to do that by staying to myself and being on the right track. Next fall I’m studying biology at Winston-Salem State University and will enter veterinary medicine. I want to help animals and make a change. Education is one of the ways to do that,” Cheraine, from Southwest, added with great enthusiasm.
TSI’s 10th annual school grade rewards ceremony came amid widespread concern about the academic progress of students in the public and charter school systems. Data released by D.C. Public Schools in March showed a decline of at least 12 percentage points in the graduation rate this year, a likely result of grade-fixing and attendance scandals that rocked the school system earlier in the academic year.
Earlier this month, to the chagrin of some education advocates, emergency legislation passed by the D.C. Council overrode policy that forbade high school senior who had missed more than 30 days of school from graduating.
Andre Ross Jr., valedictorian for the class of 2018 at National Collegiate Preparatory Charter High School in Southeast and student-athlete, said he avoided the pitfalls of dropping out or graduating late by using his character education on the football field to persevere in his school’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which exposes students to college-level coursework and requires hours of study.
“Being a student-athlete in the IB program was difficult and called for more time management and dedication,” said Ross, an 18-year-old wide receiver who plans to study sociology at Union College in Schenectady, New York, this fall. “I was able to finish it, which was a blessing because this doesn’t happen for everyone. I like talking to youth. I want to work for the youth once I come straight out of college. I just have to stay focused and be patient. Through the hard times, you might not know what comes next.”