Philly school district celebrates top students who persevered despite virtual school

Superintendent William Hite praised the class of 2021 for its resilience in the face of COVID-19 and its many, rippling disruptions.

William Hite speaks at a press conference.

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite speaks at a press conference. (City of Philadelphia)

School District of Philadelphia high school seniors are about to finish their final, fully virtual year of classes.

At his weekly press conference Thursday, Superintendent William Hite praised the class of 2021 for its resilience in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and its many, rippling disruptions.

“Our seniors have shown that even when faced with adversity they can exceed expectations,” said Hite.

Hite chose a handful of students to speak Thursday, choosing seniors from across the city who exhibit a range of accomplishments.

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Geyante Payne, valedictorian in the first graduating class of Vaux Big Picture High School in North Philadelphia, has also balanced coursework at the Community College of Philadelphia. All the while, she remained on the honor roll.

“It shows how hardworking does pay off, and I persevered from the pandemic, through all of that,” said Payne.

Payne was accepted into 13 colleges and offered a total of almost $1 million in scholarships.

Payne ultimately decided on Cheyney University, the historically Black institution that straddles Delaware and Chester counties.

She always knew she wanted to attend an HBCU. “I knew I’d feel comfortable in the space,” said Payne, “And I chose a school that was best for me and a school that didn’t want to put a price on my education.”

She’ll attend Cheyney on a full scholarship, and plans to study criminal justice ahead of becoming a civil justice lawyer.

Some students, like Gabriel Hernandez-Casilla, are off to full-time employment immediately after graduation.

Hernandez-Casilla completed an auto technology program at Jules E. Mastbaum Technical School that gives him 18 industry certifications.

He accepted a full-time automotive apprenticeship with Philadelphia’s Office of Fleet Management.

“High school is very tough … but it’s up to you to overcome it and get over that,” said Hernandez. “And when you get over that you have a good starting point for the future.”

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The successes of individual students come against a backdrop of larger questions about how students have been faring this year.

Many teachers have noted huge drops in attendance this year, especially in the second semester.

School leaders saw a rise in 10th through 12th graders balancing jobs and virtual classes simultaneously. Due to byproducts of the pandemic, more Philadelphia families struggled to afford basic necessities and relied on teens to contribute financially.

The district also noticed more teens struggling with mental health issues, as more calls came into the Philly Hopeline.

Internal benchmarking tests showed especially negative results this year for the district’s youngest students. State standardized tests were not administered this year, with a plan to do so in the fall. District leaders also said they do not yet have the graduation rates for the class of 2021.

The teens at Thursday’s press conference offered advice for students in the next few graduating classes, who the district hopes will attend fully in person this fall. 

Damonte Rush, a senior at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science, said to make as many connections as you can.

“The best thing to do is get real close with your teachers,” said Rush. “Because you may not think that they’ll be there for a while, but you may earn some life-long connections and friends.”

Rush missed face-to-face interactions with teachers this year.

“It was really difficult to push through, but I just knew I had to — especially considering it was my last year,” said Rush. “I really just made sure that I stayed grounded.”

Rush is set to attend Morehouse College, also on a full ride, through the Morgan Stanley HBCU scholar’s program.

He wants to become a real estate agent and a day trader after he graduates from college.

Akira Webster, a senior at Randolph Technical High School, also has concrete advice for students.

“Don’t try to do too many things at one time,” said Webster. “Just focus on school and that aspect.”

Webster won Philadelphia Councilman Curtis Jones’ Black History Month poetry and spoken word contest this year.

She is headed to Indiana University in the fall and plans to become a pediatric oncologist.

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