Commencement Challenge: Finalist Essays

Blue Valley Northwest High School (Overland, KS)

Blue Valley Northwest is a support system. Our school unity brings comfort to every student. Students are congratulated for their success, but more importantly, when students struggle, they learn to persevere and grow because their Northwest family supports them.

Activities, athletics and academics all tie together. With 85.2 percent of students involved in extra-curricular activities, the passions formed outside the classroom motivate us to succeed academically. After analyzing a play on the football field, students sit down to successfully analyze a poem. Not only does the students’ involvement bring an undeniable spirit to the school, educational opportunities build a spirit within each student. With 52 percent of current sophomores, juniors and seniors taking college-level courses, we are certainly equipped to carry our education beyond Northwest.

Our learning goes deeper than memorizing formulas. We learn personal responsibility, critical thinking and problem solving every day. Entering the “real world” isn’t scary to us; it’s simply our next step. It’s never a question of whether we’ll attend college; it’s a question of what college we’ll choose. Of our 414 seniors, 95 percent will attend college, which is remarkable for any traditional public high school. It’s what we know, and we know we’re prepared.

Clark Montessori Jr. & Sr. High School (Cincinnati, OH)

Clark Montessori is the first public Montessori high school in the nation; since 2000, despite having no entrance exam, 99.5% of seniors graduated and 96.5% of graduates attended post-secondary education. Additionally, Clark is racially and socio-economically diverse -- 30-51% of students are in their family’s first generation to attend college, and 33% receive free/reduced lunch.

Each student completes over 200 community service hours -- stewardship projects include working with the Ohio State School for the Blind and Habitat for Humanity.

Four years of core classes at the honors level are required; post-secondary options are available and currently over 30% of seniors are enrolled in AP Calculus. The required 30-40 page senior project allows students to develop time-management skills, research a topic of choice with a qualified mentor, and utilize a university library. To accomplish this, over 90% of seniors attend Saturday morning and after-school help sessions.

Students participate in eight extensive, academically rigorous field studies. These include College Preparation and Job Internship experiences.

Students and families, carefully guided through the college process, also receive individual support with the financial aid process.

Overall, student-led education unites parents, students, and teachers into an extraordinary support system. We learn, achieve, and thrive together.

Denver School of Science and Technology (Denver, CO)

At DSST, half of us come from economically disadvantaged families. 62% are Hispanic or African American. Half are first generation college-bound students. Most of us came here at least one level behind in math and English, but we close achievement gaps – only a 4% difference between income groups in 10th grade reading scores. Of our first three graduating classes, 100% have been accepted into a four-year college and less than 7% of graduates needed remedial courses. 47% of us enter STEM fields in college, of whom 19% are women and 59% are minority – we will be America’s next innovators. 

Our small community means we have a responsibility to live the core values: responsibility, courage, respect, curiosity, integrity, and doing your best. Our advisory groups are a place to talk; internships relate our learning to the world. These things keep us engaged. If you miss a day, people notice. If you’re late, you apologize to the community. Our school’s values are our values.

Our mission is bigger than just us. People come from across the country to see how our teachers teach and how we get into college. We are a model that people use to help thousands of other students.

Environmental Charter High School (Lawndale, CA)

ECHS is alive.  We’re blocks from the world’s most congested freeway, yet we step onto campus with fruit trees and a running stream of reclaimed water, which was once asphalt, and we know we’re in an environment designed to envision a better life.  As freshmen evaluate community health, sophomores debate the sustainability of progress, juniors examine the American dream, and we ask, “How are we powerful?” In our urbanite amphitheatre, we showcase art, host composting workshops, and train freshmen for success at ECHS. We give tours and present solutions and best practices, so 98% of us feel comfortable public speaking. With more graduation requirements than schools nationally, we pack our schedules with AP and college courses and exceed service requirements.  ECHS is challenging; but, we thrive – we’ve learned education is empowerment and graduation is a milestone on our journey to a better world. We are 68% Latino, 20% African-American, 78% low income.  Arriving 2.5 grade levels behind peers in math and English, by graduation we outperform national averages. 92% of us were accepted into universities in 2009 and most are first in our families to attend.  We’re prepared to redefine the American Dream, rewrite our futures and heal our planet.

Kalamazoo Central High School (Kalamazoo, MI)

Kalamazoo Central is a diverse, dynamic and dedicated community of students and staff committed to our district’s mission:  Every Child, Every Opportunity, Every Time. We challenge ourselves to take more AP classes (an increase of 221% in 4 years); we involve ourselves in our community through activism such as PeaceJam; and we take classes such as aviation technology and construction trades that prepare us for careers and college.  Our relationships with teachers and staff empower us all to form a united bond and a belief in our end goal:  changing the world through education.  Since 2006, 91% of all Kalamazoo Central graduates have attended college, affirming a college going culture in a vibrant community of 1700.  The Kalamazoo Promise—free college tuition for all—gives us the opportunity to achieve our college dreams. Our superintendent phrased it best:  

“If you’re looking for a community where going to college is a birthright, then Kalamazoo Public Schools isn’t it; but, if you’re looking for a community trying to send a whole host of students to college, then Kalamazoo Central is a model of that success.” 

We no longer merely hope for a future; we are confident that we are the future.

Maritime & Science Technology Senior High School – MAST Academy (Miami, FL)

MAST's 100% graduation rate is only one measure of student success. Our school's strong core curriculum, which includes a variety of Advanced Placement and dual enrollment courses, complements the unique electives that truly set MAST apart. In Solar Energy class, we learn about kilowatt-hours, then construct solar ovens and spread environmental awareness by monitoring school energy usage. Cadets in the nation's only Coast Guard JROTC program earn boating licenses on the surface, while underwater, engineering students test their remotely operated vehicles. Culinary classes prepare feasts using produce from our "edible garden," while woodshop students construct everything from dining tables to CO2-powered cars. We express creativity through steel drum band or ceramics class, while required internships provide hands-on experience in fields ranging from marine biology to architecture. As a testament to the dedication that MAST instills, the majority of our diverse student body stays beyond the bell to participate in activities like water polo, ocean conservation, multicultural dance and independent research in our greenhouse and artificial reefs.

MAST's 100% college acceptance rate proves the effectiveness of well-rounded, interactive learning. Here, students, teachers and parents take initiative to build a culture of success that propels us into college and beyond.



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