NEWARK, NJ — A backup of more than 100 honking cars lined Mulberry Street on Wednesday, but the people inside them weren’t grimacing or smashing fists into their steering wheels. 

With windows scrawled with congratulations and decorated with balloons, these cars carried the joyful North Star Academy students and loved ones to Newark’s only “drive-through” graduation at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. The seniors were ushered into a parking-lot-turned-graduation-stage by the school's raucous staff and administrators. 

The charter school's two high schools, Washington Park High and Lincoln Park High, graduated more than 200 students this year — a class whose ceremony was nearly confined to the four corners of a computer screen. Prior to COVID-19, the event would have been hosted inside NJPAC.

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And what a shame it would have been not to see this particular graduating class in caps and gowns, according to Karin Gerald, North Star's regional senior director. Washington Park saw the exit of its first kindergarten class in 2020, and for Lincoln Park, it was the first graduation for its founding class. 

“Our founding class paved the way and created traditions that will last for classes to come,” said Lincoln Park Co-Valedictorian Christelle Gilot. “We have helped lay the foundation for a truly special community.”  

The ceremony was split into two parts, with Lincoln Park graduating at 9:00 a.m. and Washington Park students rolling in for their diplomas at 11:30 a.m.

For students and their families, seeing their academic accomplishments recognized — albeit a little later than anticipated — was an experience they wouldn’t have missed for anything. According to Lincoln Park Principal Tildi Sharpe, students said graduation was the most important item on their senior year priority list in a school-wide survey. 

“I finally have that final step, and now I can end my journey to begin a new one. It means a lot,” said senior Elizabeth Dawodu.

North Star Academy serves nearly 6,000 students in grades K-12 in Newark. Its mission is to ensure students are prepared to succeed in and graduate from college. Its alumni are nearly five times more likely to graduate from college than other typical students from low income communities.

The school was ranked #1 in Essex County last year according to U.S. News and World Report, and it has the highest Advanced Placement participation rate in the state. About 55% of the Class of 2019 passed one or more AP exam, about 30 percentage points higher than the national average.

The graduates are headed to a wide range of colleges, including Rutgers, Howard, Spelman, Syracuse, Brown, University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University, many with full scholarships.

Staff and students resounded that getting to see their teachers and classmates again, and say goodbye before they depart for college and beyond, was the closure they needed to their K-12 education. 

Washington Park Head of School Michael Mann said it was positive for the students and parents to have the experience when everyone believed they might miss it for so long. 

"On a day-to-day basis, it can be hard to see what it’s all adding up to,” he said. “We need things like this to sustain that energy, because working hard, you need to see tangible signs that hope is warranted and is going to result in a great outcome. This is symbolic, and it’s so great to be able to do this.”

He added that support from the city, Prudential and NJPAC made the event possible.