Last week, the graduating class of Connecticut’s Path Academy walked across the stage to receive their high school diplomas. But four of those students did so with a bit of extra bling.
Path Academy graduation 2017
Photo: NECSN's Jose Alfaro
That’s because those four students, as well as three underclassmen, were honored just days prior to graduation in the school’s first-ever Scholar Leader Awards ceremony.
Path Academy is a public charter school located in Willimantic, CT. This unique school works to re-engage students that are over-age and/or under-credited, students who in many cases have previously dropped out of high school or were likely to drop out. By creating a truly supportive environment, Path Academy gives these scholars the extra support and tools they need in order to graduate from high school and go on to college or the workforce.
Fabio Ayala, Youth Development Specialist at Path Academy, says that many of the students who come to Path Academy do so because they were unable to find success within a traditional high school model. Many of them come to Path after having gone through a number of hardships, as well as their fair share of ups and downs. He says that this year, the staff and faculty wanted to do something special to recognize a select group of students they felt had worked especially hard at bouncing back from these challenges.
"Sometimes, especially working with certain populations, they get used to hearing the negative -- people only reach out to tell them they did something wrong," Ayala said. "But students need to see that there are great things that need to be celebrated."
He says that after faculty and staff went through the entire roster of students, coming up with four seniors and three underclassmen who would receive the honor, all seven of the students were called down to the office.
Most were nervous believing they were getting in trouble, but those nerves soon turned to excitement when they learned they were going to be recognized in front of friends and family at a special ceremony in their honor.
Seniors received their medals with white ribbon, while underclassmen received theirs with orange ribbon
On-hand at the June 8 ceremony was CT State Representative Angel Arce of Hartford. Rep. Arce had met a group of Path scholars earlier in the year at the State Capitol in Hartford - including Path senior Dakota Ibarrondo who was among those being honored that evening. He was so impressed that he made it a priority to come and address the scholars that evening, even after a long night at the State Capitol in which a final budget did not come to pass.
Rep. Arce described the previous night as "tough" and said that he and other lawmakers "walked out yesterday dragging." But for him, there was nothing more important to do than to attend the ceremony and encourage the seven awardees.
"I don’t want you to be like me. I want you to be better than me," he said, adding, "You can do it."
Rep. Arce addresses the award recipients
Rep. Arce also made reference to the multi-level structure of the Path Academy school building, which occupies several floors of a building in downtown Willimantic. Students can either walk the stairs or take the elevator, but Rep. Arce used this as an analogy to encourage the awardees never to take the easy way in life.
"Don’t take the elevator. Take the stairs," he said, adding "When you reach the top and look back, it’s going to be an amazing trip."
Rep. Arce took time to recognize teachers and parents for their role in the success of the awardees, and also reaffirmed his commitment to working with all schools -- including charter schools. He expressed high hopes for the scholars, and reminded them that they have an open door when it comes to him.
"If I’m at the Capitol, you don’t need an appointment. You come and find me," he said, adding, "You don’t work for me, I work for you."
His colleague, CT State Representative Susan Johnson of Windham, also attended the ceremony and took time to congratulate the honorees.
Rep. Johnson (left) and Rep. Arce (center/back) join the scholar leader awardees, along with Ayala and Brooke Lafreniere, Principal at Path Academy (back/right)
Each scholar was recognized individually, then presented with a certificate and a medal. For the seniors, that medal came with a distinguishing white ribbon which they could add to their graduation regalia.
A particularly touching part of the awards were the personal narratives from educators who acknowledged each awardee individually, sharing anecdotal stories about them all. Some of the stories were serious, some were funny, but each story highlighted just how much of a positive impact these seven scholars had made on the Path community.
Rep. Arce presents Dakota, a graduating senior, with her scholar leader medal
Ayala says that feeling of pride and accomplishment is what they hoped to capture through the Scholar Leader Awards, and he hopes that those feelings will stay with the scholars for years to come. He says in doing so, they’re giving these scholars so much more than high marks or a good grade, they’re giving them self-esteem.
"These kids may not remember how to balance an equation, they may not remember the capital of a country, but they’ll remember how it felt to know that they did something good," Ayala said.