Invoking hip-hop, Beyonce, and the wise words of his grandmother who raised him, Shavar Jeffries delivered a rousing graduation speech at North Star Academy in Newark, telling the graduating class that they had been given the power to change the world.
“The world only changes when smart, passionate people like you change it,” Jeffries, former Newark Public Schools Advisory Board President and 2014 mayoral candidate, told the graduates.
“You are starting the rest of your life, the world needs you; it needs your intellect your passion, your service,” he said “Never doubt yourself. You were born with all that you need to be who you were created to be.”
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Jeffries, a civil rights lawyer who now heads a national organization devoted to reforming education, told graduates the education they received at North Star Academy has prepared them for whatever life has to offer.
“The world is yours,” Jeffries said. “And you may not yet fully comprehend how the unique gifts that you have match up with the world’s needs in such a way that shifts the trajectory of your life, those around you, and the world generally.”
The ceremony for the 81 graduates -- nearly all black and Latino and low income -- included a conferring of Kente cloths, an African tradition originally reserved for royalty. Kente cloths were passed on by an elder to a member of the younger generation making an important rite of passage. Students received their diplomas on stage and then stepped down into the audience to receive the Kente cloth from a family member.
“Students, we ask that you wear the Kente with pride,” a teacher said. “Pride in yourselves, pride in the beautiful heritage of which you are a part, and as a symbol of your lasting connection to our North Star community.”
North Star Academy is the number-one ranked high school in the city of Newark according to U.S. News & World Report. Nearly all of its senior class members are off to four-year colleges like Notre Dame, Rutgers, Brandeis and Howard universities.
Students were showered with praise about their accomplishments.
“I’ve been the principal since 2009, and the Class of 2017 has made the most progress of any class from freshman year to senior year,” said Michael Mann to the graduates. “Not only that, but this group has set a new high standard for academic performance.”
North Star will celebrate its 20th anniversary serving Newark students next year. Educators from around the world visit the school because of its academic results. Three fourths of the senior class passed the statewide PARCC exam in English last year, compared with 38 percent of the students in the five wealthiest towns in Essex County, outperforming students in Montclair, Verona, Livingston and Glen Ridge.
In terms of Advanced Placement courses, the most rigorous classes that high school students can take, North Star students had higher participation than the county’s wealthiest districts. About 80 percent of North Star seniors took AP courses last year, compared with less than half of the seniors in Milburn.
Last month, the Washington Post ranked North Star among the most rigorous high schools in America and fourth in New Jersey from among almost 400 high schools. It ranks among the top 3 percent of all high schools in the country, according to US News and World Report.
On average, students in the class of 2017 are borrowing $4,000 in student loans each year, half of the national average. One student who was awarded the prestigious Posse Foundation Scholarship, who will be receiving $200,000 in scholarship money over four years.
Students say a “sense of community” helps them persevere in such an academically rigorous environment. That sense of community drives students to constantly build each other up.
In their final days as North Star seniors, students were asked to reflect on their peers, Mann said during his speech. The first question was: ‘Who has exhibited selfless leadership this year?’ According to Mann, “the seniors mentioned 23 of their peers, including ‘everyone,’ which says a lot about the extent of genuine leadership in this group.”
The graduation came weeks after Senior Signing Day at North Star, where students declared their colleges in a raucous pep rally in the gym.
In an inspirational speech during Senior Signing Day, Senior Torvianna Williams recognized dozens of other students. “Growth is the definition of Sheridan Phillip, who evolved into a positive influence amongst her peers”, she said. “Growth is Shequille Fearon, who quickly adapted to the rigorous North Star Community.”
Then, she counseled the lowerclassmen. She emphasized the importance of supporting one another in the journey that they are all on towards college in saying to the rising seniors, “The torch now belongs to you. I am so confident in your ability to continue leading our younger brothers and sisters. Always remember to stay unified as one.”