Students graduating from high school affiliated with Stanford urged to 'lift as we climb'

The East Palo Alto Academy, a small public charter high school, held its graduation ceremony in Stanford's Memorial Auditorium earlier this week and graduated 40 seniors, nearly all of whom will be the first in their families to attend college in the fall.

In her valedictorian address, Emmonie Gulley gave a shout out to every one of her fellow graduates in the Class of 2013 at East Palo Alto Academy during a high-spirited ceremony that rocked Stanford's Memorial Auditorium with song, cheers, applause and laughter.

L.A. CiceroGraduate Alamoni Afungia welcomes the audience to the East Palo Alto Academy graduation ceremony.

Graduate Alamoni Afungia welcomes the audience to the East Palo Alto Academy graduation ceremony.

"We are the best class," said Gulley, who will be attending California State University–Chico in the fall. "We are the loudest, the craziest and the funniest. But most importantly, we are the most improved class that ever walked the halls of East Palo Alto Academy high school."

At the Tuesday evening ceremony, Gulley said the Class of 2013 had been a challenging one to motivate at first.

"I think back to freshman year, and we were all so bad," she said. "We simply didn't care about school or teachers. Now I look at each and every one of you and I see the definition of growth."

"I look at you, Victor, and I am so proud of you," she continued, speaking to Victor Solorzano, one of the graduating seniors sitting in the front rows of the auditorium dressed in black caps and gowns, many wearing colorful leis. "I remember just two years ago we were in Miss Wong's biology class playing tic tac toe."

Gulley paused, turning from the podium to flash a guilty smile at science teacher Amy Wong, who was sitting on the stage with two other class advisers.

"Now you're the one telling me to pay attention in class and texting me to make sure I'm studying for math," Gulley told Solorzano.

She added that only 30 percent of teen moms graduate from high school, but that statistic didn't hold true for the teen moms in the Class of 2013, all of whom were graduating – an announcement that won sustained cheers from the audience.

Gulley also praised the teachers of East Palo Alto Academy, a public charter school affiliated with Stanford, saying they had taught her how to push through, helped her keep on track and forced her to think on her own. And turned her into a math nerd.

"I'm so thankful you were so hard on me," she said to math teacher Christy Halstead. "You gave me no mercy. Even when I broke down in tears, you still told me I had to take the test. One of the proudest moments I have is the memory of passing your final with an "A." I'll be Skyping you next year so you can help me with math."

The ceremony began with a spirited performance of the Class of 2013 graduation rap song, Let's Go, EPAA!, by a quartet of two students and two teachers.

'We must lift as we climb'

Eugene Clark-Herrera, a partner in the law firm Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe who founded the Mural Music & Arts Project, a youth arts group in East Palo Alto, gave the commencement address.

Drawing inspiration from the life of the late A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., one of the nation's most prominent African-American judges, Clark-Herrera urged the students to follow Higginbotham's simple idea: "We must lift as we climb."

L.A. CiceroTeacher Derek Ang, students D'artagnan Sivao and Marcus Kironde and teacher Andy Robinson perform 'Let's Go EPAA' at the graduation.

Teacher Derek Ang, students D'artagnan Sivao and Marcus Kironde and teacher Andy Robinson perform 'Let's Go EPAA' at the graduation.

"I think it's most appropriate, most relevant to you, to me, to us – black and brown people," said Clark-Herrera, a 2001 graduate of Stanford Law School who previously worked as public school teacher and science curriculum developer in the South Bronx and Washington Heights neighborhoods of New York City.

"It's not surprising to learn about the challenges we encounter in everyday life. We see movies about the challenges we face and we hear about them on the news, but these are the challenges that we live every day."

Clark-Herrera encouraged the students to follow the example of the people who had opened doors for them.

"You also need to look back and see who's coming behind you and open the pathway so that they can walk behind you," he said.

"Maybe it's talking with younger students about your college experience next year – to a junior or a sophomore at the East Palo Alto Academy," he continued. "Maybe it's teaching kids in your neighborhoods how to resolve conflicts without violence. Maybe it's just practicing and pursuing for yourself personal excellence, because in that way you serve as a role model for people behind you."

Stanford and East Palo Alto Academy

In an interview before the graduation ceremony, Stanford Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond said that when the Ravenswood City School District asked Stanford to establish the high school in 2001, the district was busing students to other schools, and less than 40 percent of them were earning high school diplomas.

The academy, whose student population is 76 percent Latino, 13 percent African American and 10 percent Pacific Islander, now awards diplomas to 90 percent of its students.

Students in the academy's Class of 2013 have been admitted to nearly three dozen colleges and universities.

Darling-Hammond said all of Stanford University has a relationship with the academy, through the nonprofit Stanford Schools Corporation.

"We send student teachers from our Stanford Teacher Education Program to the academy, and faculty in the Graduate School of Education have been involved in developing its curriculum in English, math, history and science," she said.

"Seniors at the academy come to Stanford once a week for a hands-on physics lab. The Institute for Diversity in the Arts recently sponsored a spoken word performance by academy students on campus. Stanford Hospital & Clinics sends a health van to the academy every two weeks, and an adolescent psychiatrist at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital oversees mental health services at the academy."

Darling-Hammond said nearly all of the 40 graduating seniors will be the first in their families to attend college. Two-thirds of their parents never graduated from high school and fewer than 10 percent attended college.

At the end of the hour-and-a-half ceremony, after each graduate had crossed the stage, received a diploma and posed for individual photograph with his or her adviser, it was left to Darling-Hammond to give the final speech.

"On behalf of the Stanford faculty and the faculty at East Palo Alto Academy, I want to offer our congratulations, our love and our pride in all that you have accomplished," she said. "Now I would like to ask the Class of 2013 to stand up and face the audience. Move your tassel from right to left as a symbol that you are now a high school graduate."