Quahonee Edwards stood in front of her class, the seniors of HOPE Christian High School, to speak for all with truth, humility and courage. She was one of the 33 seniors who completed high school to graduate, a feat in itself given the odds placed against them, living in Milwaukee’s central city.
Not only were these students – 100 percent of the graduating class – leaving HOPE with a diploma, they were leaving with the knowledge that next fall, they each would be attending college. This was Senior Signing Day, a time when students, parents and community leaders gathered to witness the fourth consecutive year when HOPE’s seniors all were making the commitment to attend colleges that had accepted them. All attended HOPE through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.
“It’s not easy being a student at HOPE,” Quahonee confessed. “There was homework, lots of homework, reading assignments, and the papers! But we learned a couple of things, about being strong, respect, integrity, humility and character. We learned about Christ, and how to grow closer to God and defend our faith. We also learned that HOPE is college.”
“When I was younger I wanted to be a singer,” she said. “Most of us never thought about college. But, once you stepped in here, we heard about college every single day.”
“Before I came here, I was often suspended from school, at least two times a month. But when I got here,” she said, “I realized I could be in the hallway or the office, or I could be in the classroom getting an education.
“I started trying to get to school on time so that I didn’t have to eat any of those dry sandwiches for breakfast,” she added, which prompted affirming laughter from her peers.”
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m going to miss HOPE. she proclaimed, through tears and a long pause.
Minutes after her speech, Quahonee again took the stage to reveal her white and purple T-shirt, symbol of her acceptance to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Adrian Reed, a freshman studying kinesiology at Western Illinois University, returned to HOPE, where he graduated last spring, with some advice for the new graduates.
“There were times this year, when I wanted to give up,” he told the graduates, adding that if they thought HOPE was difficult, going to college was going to be even more so. “But God has given me strength to persevere, through my parents and through my teachers here.”
Adrian then thanked members of the HOPE staff that helped provide the kind of foundation he said he needed to succeed at Western. They helped him to make future goals beyond high school, become organized, use proper English and be independent. Mostly, they helped him to put God first, and that gave him strength to carry on. He passed that principle onto the new graduates. “Remember Philipians 4:13,” he said. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
“I can guarantee you, you will do one of two things next fall. You will call your parents and say, ‘School is too hard,’ or ‘I am tired of school’,” Adrian warned. “But I am here to tell you that you are better than minimum wage. You can make it. You are more than a statistic. But, only if you believe it and keep God first.”
Minutes later, all 33 graduates took the first step into their new venture. They each walked onto the stage, declared the college they have chosen to attend, then joined each other at a long table to sign a college declaration statement as a new graduate.
Aleashia Story-Metcalf and Katanya Taylor, friends throughout high school, are heading to Marian University in Fond du Lac, as are many of their classmates. Katanya said she chose the school because it is also Christ-centered, has an affordable financial aid package and would provide the assistance with tutoring and other support that she knows she will need. She will be studying nursing.
“There’s a lot I will be taking away from HOPE with me,” Katanya said. “I know school is hard work. At first, I was so immature here. HOPE showed me how to progress.”
Aleashia will be the first of her family to go to college. “Hope means to have the strength to overcome disasters,” she said, adding that reading was the toughest challenge she conquered in school.
Nicholas Payne thinks he will settle on an education major when we begins his college career at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He will start college on the wings of words from Mr. Christian Arvold, HOPE’s spiritual director and religion instructor.
“Religion was my favorite class,” Nicholas said, adding that HOPE taught him to be consistent and to find creative ways to stay motivated in school. Nicholas will join three of his older siblings in college.
Tracy Nelson will attend the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, where he can stay close to family and commute to school. He hasn’t decided what field he would like to study.
Like Tracy, Tatyana Cruz is the first of her family to be accepted to college. She will be a business major at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. Studying, staying focused and working hard helped her score highly on her school papers, something all of the students said were among the most challenging obstacles to their high school success. With a passion for fashion, she hopes to learn enough to start her own business someday.
Keynote speaker Henry Tyson, superintendent of St. Marcus Lutheran School, reminded the graduates that they are already successful. “In our city at this point in time, what you have accomplished is amazing – you have finished high school in one of the toughest schools in our state. If you’re African-American in Milwaukee, fewer than 60 percent of your peers will get that diploma. You defy the norm.
“You also need to know that it is about to get a whole lot harder,” he added. “It’s a spiritual battle. Today, the devil is ticked.”
Tyson brought three former high school graduates with him to demonstrate three important lessons he urged the graduates to remember. Calling on Derry, who has lost several close family members, including his father last week, Tyson said Derry exemplified the first point – persevere. Despite tremendous family loss, Derry is in his second semester in the electrician program at Milwaukee Area Technical College.
Tyson called on Marisol, who was accepted to Marquette University, but wanted to quit when she first arrived. “Marquette is tough,” he said. But, Marisol learned an important lesson – ask for help. She did so when she needed academic assistance, and she found help when she needed financial assistance to continue at the school. Marisol graduated from Marquette in May.
Babatunde had a full ride at Wisconsin Lutheran College. But he found the classes too intense, he confronted a gigantic cultural gap and he discovered the need to assess where God was calling him. He eventually attended Milwaukee Area Technical College and received an associate degree in social work, where he now serves others. Be useful, Tyson urged.