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In June, Deonte Toatley learned that he wouldn’t graduate from Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy alongside classmates he had come to know and love over the past few years.
While they moved on to the next stage in their academic and professional endeavors, Toatley prepared to tackle a summer course load to help him accumulate the last few credits needed for his high school diploma.
Weeks later, Toatley finally got his chance to walk across the stage and turn his tassel to the left. He did so with dozens of other young people from other schools across the District who had encountered similar situations.
Like many of them, he had his mother in his corner, cheering him on along the way.
“We’ve been through a lot. It felt like a relief,” said Toatley, 18. “I learned to push harder the first time around. [Not graduating in June] was a minor setback for a major comeback. I love my mom. We’re [going to] be rich one day.”
Toatley, 18, counted among nearly 50 young people who participated in the D.C. Public Charter School Summer Graduation. The ceremony, which took place at Capital Turnaround on June 10, marked the end of a journey that, for these high school graduates, lasted a few weeks longer than expected.
The ceremony, which is commonly referred to as “rainbow graduation” in reference to the different colors of graduation gowns converging in one space, featured graduates from Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy; Friendship Collegiate Academy Public Charter School; Friendship Online Academy Public Charter School; IDEA Public Charter School, KIPP DC College Preparatory and KIPP DC Legacy College Preparatory; Seed Public Charter School; and Washington Leadership Academy Public Charter School.
Shantelle Wright, a board member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, served as mistress of ceremonies. After a processional and Class of 2023 slideshow, graduates and their families listened to welcome remarks from Ariel Johnson, executive director of the D.C. Charter School Alliance.
They also heard recorded congratulatory messages from D.C. Council members Robert White (D-At large) and Anita Bonds (D-At large). In his in-person remarks to graduates, D.C. State Board of Education At-large member Jacque Patterson reflected on his high school experience and expressed solidarity with those who felt overwhelmed by course material.
Shortly after dancing to “Teach Me How to Dougie” by Cali Swag District and leading graduates and their families in Chuck Brown groove session, commencement speaker Mekhi McKinney packaged a thought-provoking message that included sports metaphors and allusions to intergenerational progression.
McKinney, an IDEA PCS and Virginia State University alumnus who recently completed an internship at Harvard University, told graduates that they have been called on to break generational records. In making his point, he mentioned basketball player LeBron James, and even touched on the experience of watching his younger sister tour Harvard’s campus.
“You graduated from almost everything life tried to take from you,” McKinney said. “The only thing you can take with you from moment to moment is your name. Your last name speaks to the generational struggle while your first name speaks to the power of how that struggle will be broken. I don’t care who you are, you will be brought into the world with crazy stuff… to encourage empathy for problems you can solve.”
Student speaker Aanyjah Evans poured out her heart in front of her peers, touching on moments of immaturity and a turning point in her high school career when she realized her power as a positive influence to underclassmen. Evans, an expectant mother, said she’s been further motivated to take her talents to the next level and make her family proud.
“I experienced moments of self-doubt when I didn’t graduate in June,” said Evans, a graduate of Washington Leadership Academy PCS. “Despite the odds, we can rise above adversity and overcome challenges. As we step into the world, let’s embrace the lessons learned in the last four years. Let our shared experience and struggles show us we can achieve any dream no matter what anyone tells us.”
As graduates and families gathered outside of Capital Turnaround after the ceremony, Deadrian Davis, another Washington Leadership Academy graduate, talked about attending college and eventually starting his own business.
Though he stayed in school a few weeks longer than his peers, Davis said he came out on the other end with a stronger resolve. “We all have the same 24 hours,” Davis said. “I realized that when I learned I wasn’t graduating. I felt like a fool, but I always knew it was my fault. And now I’ve persevered.”
Now that she has walked across the stage, IDEA PCS graduate Emoni Kerns said she’s exploring the military as a pathway to higher education. She said that summer school, and her experience as a high school student, has given her much to talk about with those coming behind her.
“I keep telling young people not to procrastinate,” said Kerns, 18. “When you get assignments, just do it now because you won’t feel like doing it later.”