Newark's Central High School sees success with high graduation rate despite challenges
Jessica Calefati | The Star-Ledger
NEWARK — The theme came through loud and clear today: Central High School’s seniors succeeded because they are fighters.
They fought for a new building that was promised and then nearly denied them. They fought for a federal grant to improve their school. And amid the clamor of rhetoric surrounding the failure of Newark schools, and the street violence deaths of their friends, they fought to have the highest percentage of graduates from any non-magnet high school in the city.
At today’s graduation, one of 15 that took place across the city in recent days, 188 Central seniors received diplomas during a jubilant two-hour ceremony in the school’s gymnasium. Speakers stressed the students’ perseverance.
"No matter how much they tried to put Central down, we are here," Principal and City Councilman Ras Baraka told the graduates and their families. "You can never change what’s been done to you, but you can stay focused, stand up straight and be successful."
The turmoil Central’s graduates dealt with during their high school careers began when they were freshmen. In 2008, possible building code violations threw into question plans to inhabit a new school facility that had been 10 years and $100 million in the making.
A reputation for low student performance and gang violence caused negativity to persist, said Baraka, who became the school’s principal in 2007. But ultimately, the challenges of being a Newark public high school propelled Central’s seniors and underclassmen to "step up" — another theme of today’s ceremony.
"These students succeeded against tremendous odds," Baraka said. "Most students would have quit, cried or been depressed when their friends were getting murdered on the streets, but these kids still found a way to do well."
A federal School Improvement Grant for $5 million allowed Central to extend its school day to 4:15 p.m. and offer college-readiness courses to juniors and seniors. The extra services helped all but seven seniors pass one of the state’s required graduation exams, the smallest number of any other non-magnet high school in the city.
Those students have until mid-July to pass and still receive their diplomas.
The one-time, three-year grant also helped last year’s juniors boost the school’s performance on the High School Proficiency Assessment by 32.5 percent in language arts and 25.9 percent in math. Baraka said he expects next year’s scores to be even higher.
The Class of 2011’s success as high school students will follow some of them to college. Together, the senior class is receiving $1.3 million in college scholarships. Co-valedictorian Ayanna Branch alone earned $159,000 for her education at Xavier University of Louisiana, an administrator announced at the ceremony.
Branch’s father, Amos Branch, said his daughter’s success concludes a long journey. Branch and her classmates prove to the state that "you can be successful when you work hard, even if you’re from Newark."
One graduate honored with a scholarship at the ceremony said he had resisted peer pressure to give up on school in exchange for a gang affiliation.
"The great men in this school teaching us changed all of that," said Damian Murray-Shaw, who starts classes at Lincoln Technical Institute in Union next month.
"All of the haters were wrong," he said.