It was, many repeated, not a normal graduation ceremony.
Yes, there were the words of encouragement, proclamations to pursue dreams and stories of supportive teachers and parents who gave up everything in home countries so their children could have something better.
But the students who formed a sea of silver and burgundy in a Queens College auditorium Tuesday morning were doing more than bidding their childhood adieu —they were saying goodbye to a high school that, 111 years after celebrating its first graduating class, would never again be known as Richmond Hill High School. At the end of June, the city will shutter the institution built in 1899 and reopen it in September with a new name —the 21st Century School at Richmond Hill Campus —and up to 50 percent of the teachers replaced.
“This is the class that has seen the ultimate change, but that is not what you should take away about your school,” RHHS Principal Frances DeSanctis told the hundreds of graduates gathered in the college’s Colden Auditorium in Flushing.
Instead, DeSanctis urged students to “think about those who have had an influence on you … the people you’ve come into contact with who, even for just a moment, can leave such an impression on us that it stays with us forever.”
Richmond Hill is one of seven high schools in Queens to close this month, which Mayor Bloomberg and other city officials said they are doing because of low test scores and graduation rates. However, many legislators and educators in the borough say the closures follow limited funding and academic support from the city Department of Education for large neighborhood high schools that educate a growing number of students with a variety of needs, including homeless populations and those who come to the facility speaking little to no English.
At RHHS, the student body represents at least 59 countries —the school’s valedictorian, Arunan Naahanathan, and salutatorian, Leticia Arellano, for example, recently moved from Sri Lanka and Mexico, respectively.
“When I first came to this country, I was scared, lost and homesick,” said Arellano, who moved with her parents from Puebla, Mexico to Richmond Hill during her freshman year. “ … There was no choice but to go forward. I had to conquer my fear that I would not learn English. I practiced my English with my friends on a daily basis. It was not easy, but I overcame my fears and opened myself to a new beginning.”
Arellano, who credits her grandmother — a single mother who often traveled half a day to sell crafts in San Martin, Mexico — with much of her drive to succeed, is now fluent in English and will attend the City College of New York this fall. She hopes to ultimately go to medical school and become a pediatrician.
Like the salutatorian, Naahanathan recently moved with his family to Richmond Hill. The valedictorian left Sri Lanka two and a half years ago to come to Queens, and he has since mastered English and will attend Stony Brook University with the goal of ultimately becoming a surgeon.
“When I first arrived, it only took a couple hours to know the teachers at Richmond Hill High School cared about me, and know I was not just another name,” Naahanathan said. “ … Richmond Hill High School is a special place. It’s not only a building, it’s a home. We are family. We all are better people because of our time at Richmond Hill High School.”
Like his colleague, Naahanathan said his family’s support has made a world of difference when it comes to his academic success.
“You brought us to a place where you didn’t know anybody, or have a job, and you did it all so your sons could have a better life,” he said to his parents in the audience.
Throughout the ceremony, which included a video presentation that flashed photos of smiling students dressed up for their prom and arms flung around each other at picnics, educators and students wiped away tears when they mentioned this was the school’s final graduation ceremony.
“As I prepared this speech, I flipped through the yearbook and recalled all of the events,” DeSanctis said. “ …I was always so proud when I attended any of these events.”
The principal urged students to “always respect diversity —it is a beautiful thing,” and told them that she had “achieved her career goals, and now I hope you can achieve yours.”
“It was a great run,” DeSanctis said after the ceremony. “It’s been my greatest privilege to be here.”