Columbus Collegiate's first graduating class: The path was hard but the results great

Nikki Baszynski

Nikki Baszynski reflects on the
eighth-grade graduation ceremony at
Columbus
Collegiate Academy
(CCA), a Fordham-authorized middle
school serving students in grades six through eight (the vast majority of whom
are economically disadvantaged). CCA recently won the Gold Star EPIC award from
New Leaders for New Schools for its extraordinary student achievement gains,
placing it among only four schools nationally to win the honor. In short, its
eighth-grade graduates are among the best prepared incoming high schoolers in
the city of Columbus, if not the whole state. Nikki was a founding teacher at
the school, is a Teach For America alumna, and is now pursuing her juris
doctorate at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.

As we waited for the elevator, I looked
to my left and saw a sign above the drinking fountain declaring, “Whites Only.”
Two Columbus Collegiate Academy graduates – one black, one Hispanic – noted the
sign, too, and continued to read the commentary below it. The remaining portion
of the sign explained the historic division of the races, recognized the
efforts made to close that gap, and then ultimately welcomed all who read the
sign to drink freely from the water fountain. As we finished reading, the
elevator doors opened and we rode to the third floor of the King Arts Complex.

The King Arts Complex of Columbus,
Ohio, is devoted to increasing awareness of the “vast and significant
contributions of African Americans” to our country and the world. It was a
fitting location for the first Columbus Collegiate Academy eighth-grade
graduation, an event three years in the making and one of the many efforts
across this nation to close the achievement gap. There’s no question that
graduates from Columbus Collegiate Academy, where 81 percent of the students
are African American and 94 are economically disadvantaged – but achieve scores
that place them among the nation’s best, will be among those making vast
contributions to our community.

Founder and Executive Director Andrew
Boy began the program by thanking everyone who made CCA’s success possible and
introducing guest speaker Ray Miller, a former member of the Ohio General
Assembly. Miller offered words of encouragement and advice to the graduates,
ending with Marianne Williamson’s quote, “As we let our own light shine, we
unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” Certainly, CCA’s
students and their success have lit the path for fellow schools to aspire to
the same high expectations and believe that those expectations can be met with
a rigorous curriculum, a dedicated staff, and a culture of excellence.

Jeniffer.jpg

The graduation ceremony also featured
four student speakers: the class poet, co-valedictorians, and salutatorian.
Each student’s speech conveyed a similar message about the CCA experience: the
path was hard, the teamwork necessary, and the results great. They recalled the
nervousness with which they began, the excitement with which they are leaving,
and the gratitude they have for all those who helped them along the way. One of
CCA’s valedictorians recognized the historic nature of the moment and its
binding power on all the graduates: “We’re not just classmates or associates,
we are a family…and we will always be the founding class of Columbus Collegiate
Academy.”

Ms. Kathryn Anstaett, CCA’s social
studies teacher, captured the widespread feelings of possibility and
enthusiasm, and exemplified the school’s culture of high expectations and
dedication, when she said, “I’m so happy and excited that people like you are
going to be leaders of the future because you have passion, compassion, empathy,
tolerance, and problem-solving skills that I know are going to make our world,
our country, greater in the future than it is today.”

Elijah.jpg

The program ended with advice and kind
words from Minister Rhesa Green and each student walking to the front of the
room to receive a diploma. The audience clapped, cheered, and celebrated the
end of the students’ three-year journey at CCA. But, the “Class of 2019” banner
that hung above the students ensured no one forgot that the end of their time
at CCA was really just one more step toward their ultimate goal – college
graduation. And thanks to CCA, each of them has the skills, knowledge, and
passion to achieve that goal.

Though the era of “Whites Only” signs
has passed, racial segregation and its impacts on student achievement–
especially in our schools – have not. I am sure CCA’s graduates will continue
to encounter systemic roadblocks throughout their lives, but, I am also certain
that when faced with a roadblock, they will do what they’ve been trained to do
at CCA through the culture of high expectations and an unrelenting pursuit of
success: acknowledge its existence and then proudly rise above it.