The Department of Education has spoken, and Newtown High School will close its doors after 115 years.
But the Class of 2012 was in a proud, celebratory and just a little bit defiant mood at its commencement ceremony on Wednesday.
“Commencement,” said student speaker Clarisse Borrega, “means ‘a beginning.’”
The Elmhurst school, fabled for its stately tower as much as its history, will be one of 24 New York City high schools that will close and be reorganized and renamed before reopening in September.
Borrega and fellow student speakers Fabian Medina and Randy Sanchez spoke on the school theme of pride, tradition and legacy during ceremonies at York College.
“We are the last graduating class in the school’s history,” Medina said. “We should be proud of that. We should live our slogan: ‘We tower above the rest.’”
Borrega said the school that so intimidated her quickly took her in and became home.
“When I first set foot on the pavement of Newtown High School, the only person I knew there was my brother,” she said. “We were uncomfortable with English, and some did not speak it at all. But Newtown accepted us with open arms.”
But she soon came to be steeped in the school’s history, speaking of the time she learned that paintings in the school were dedicated to Newtown students who gave their lives in World War II.
Sanchez elicited laughs and cheers with brief references to the prom, the senior trip, and inside jokes about a teacher’s neckties and Assistant Principal Eric Levitan’s daily Pledge of Allegiance.
But he too encouraged his classmates to make people remember Newtown High School through them.
“Make our school proud,” he said.
Under the reorganization, up to 50 percent of the teachers will be replaced.
Lisa Jimenez, a social studies teacher at the school for two years, did not know prior to the ceremony if she still will have a job.
“We find out today,” she said while setting up outside the auditorium prior to the ceremony.
Principal John Ficalora was introduced to a standing ovation. He and his brothers are graduates of Newtown, and at 20 years is its second-longest serving principal. He asked his students to thank their teachers.
“In the past, when students have come back after 10 years or 20 years, they tell me about the teachers who have had an impact on them,” Ficalora said. “You won’t be able to do that.”
Ficalora also spoke of the tower, the plaques in the school dedicated to students who have died serving their country as far back as World War I, and its trophy case.
“The oldest one goes back to 1900,” he said.
And in September the halls that he roamed as a student and a principal will be part of a new school.
But somehow, The College and Career Academies High School at Newtown Campus just doesn’t seem like it could inspire the same loyalty and love in the auditorium on Wednesday.
“We have a proud heritage and history,” Ficalora said, appearing to stifle a tear or two. “We challenge you to take up that mantle. Dream big.”