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Posted under: Education Editorial Desk

How This High School Achieved A 100 Percent Graduation Rate 4 Years In A Row, And Inspired Desiigner To Celebrate With Them

New Heights Academy Charter School in Harlem is changing the mindsets of its students and making sure they know anything is possible.

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High school is an amazing time in many people’s lives. Maturity begins to peak through, responsibilities in various forms are accepted and lifelong friends are made. But it’s also a time of enormous pressure, with the idea that all the work you do academically and in extracurriculars will culminate into significant adult life paths, opening or closing the number of choices you have for your future. It’s a lot to think about, and many students don’t make it through. And if they do, for some, higher education is not an option for various reasons.

So, it’s a fantastic feat that a high school in New York City is boasting a 100 percent graduation rate and, on top of that, a 100 percent college acceptance rate of those graduates. Enter, New Heights Academy Charter School in Harlem.

New Heights Academy has pulled this feat for four years now and shows no signs of slowing down. “One of the great things that we have is that we’re trying to build a culture of college access and college success, getting them to apply and be successful in what they’re applying to,” Zoraida Torres, one of two of the school’s college and career counselors told Blavity.

Part of the secret to the school’s astounding success could be that many of its leadership grew up in New York City, or nearby, and are people of color — a reflection of the New Heights majority Latino student body. Torres is from the Bronx, the high school principal, Fred Givens, is from Newark, New Jersey, and the executive director, Christina Brown, is from Jersey City, New Jersey. Brown expanded on the idea of relating to the students’ environment by stating, “My high school experience was very different from this one [at New Heights], but it gave me the idea to make sure that every child applied [to college] and that freshmen and sophomores went on college tours, because that was my experience in a parochial school.” She continued, “So, we tried to bring that here because we want to make sure that the same types of service that kids that go to those types of schools receive, receive here in Harlem and Washington Heights.”

The faculty and staff pulled out all the punches to celebrate the 2018 graduating seniors’ success by throwing a beyond lit pep rally, complete with celebrity appearances. The Bronx born and bred Remy Ma appeared in the past. This year, on June 8, the forever turnt up rapper Desiigner came through. “I wanted to congratulate all the kids that made 100 percent four years straight,” Desiigner told Blavity on why he wanted to support the event. “I didn’t come from a school like that. At my school, everybody didn’t graduate. I was one of the kids that didn’t graduate.”

He further detailed, “I didn’t have a senior year. Kanye [West] grabbed me in the 11th grade [for my music career], and my credits were kinda bad. So for the seniors, I admire that! That they kept the journey for themselves. They saw where they were at. They were put in an environment and made themselves comfortable enough to do what they wanted to do. I just really give them that gratitude. I look up to that!”

New Heights executive director, Christina Brown, and principal, Fred Givens, with Desiigner and Drewski | Photo: Cassidy Maldonado
New Heights executive director, Christina Brown, and principal, Fred Givens, with Desiigner and Drewski | Photo: Cassidy Maldonado

After being secretly escorted through the twisting hallways of the building to the school’s lunchroom, where the pep rally was taking place, Desiigner burst into the crowd of surprised New Heights seniors and began a fiery mini-set of his songs, which included the hit, “Panda.” The excited senior class completely let loose and celebrated the blood, sweat and tears of the last four years. The energy was thrilling and moving.

After the pep rally, Blavity spoke to two of New Heights' outstanding graduating seniors, Angelica and Jorge. Throughout their high school career, they often discussed what their futures could look like with their friends. “We definitely have talked about what we want to study in college. I have a few friends who want to do criminal justice, homicide detective, business and marketing. We really have talked deeply about the future,” Angelica told Blavity. Jorge added, “ Specifically, these last two years, the junior and senior years, have been focusing on what we’re going to study in college, what we would like to accomplish throughout our lives and how we’re going to stay in touch.”

When asked about their individual future aspirations, Jorge detailed, “I hope to do a variety of things, but primarily, I want a lot of my work to be focused on uplifting marginalized communities, such as the black and Latino communities.” He continued, “I’ve already been doing a lot of that work just as a high schooler, through being a student advocate, working with multiple organizations that have developed different plans to specifically fix the high school admissions process, and how segregated the New York City school system is. So, I hope to continue to develop that work while at the University of Rochester, and ultimately work in some way to truly affect policy and help out my community.”

As another freshman class enters into New Heights Academy this fall, you can’t help but be excited about their journey through the school. And as the 2018 senior class graduates, there’s just as much excitement about their adventures through college and out into the real world. Their success as our leaders of tomorrow is one that feels supportive, safe and super smart, just like the community of leaders and educators that created their solid foundations.

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Namon is a staff writer and editor, here at Blavity.