The 180 students in Frankford High School’s graduating class fizzed with joy and nervous energy, clutching their empty diploma folders and waving to friends and family in the concrete stadium seats.
They’d already crossed the stage and snapped selfies with Principal Michael Calderone. The salutatorian and valedictorian had delivered their speeches. The choir performed the school’s alma mater.
But there was one thing left to do. The crowd turned their faces towards the space above the students’ heads and waited.
Tuesday was the last day of school for most Philadelphia students, and few had a longer, or more challenging route to graduation than those at Frankford.
The seniors slogged through their first two years of virtual high school due to COVID only to be thrust back into remote learning when their building was closed due to damaged asbestos in early April. The school will remain shut down into next year, and district officials have said they are working to find an appropriate space for in-person classes.
Complications dogged them to the very end. Graduation day, originally scheduled for Monday, was postponed because of rain, and the nearby I-95 highway bridge collapse had disrupted travel times for working students, commuting caregivers, and those looking for a jumpstart on summer vacation at the Jersey Shore.
But for Shamoya Garrison, walking across the stage on Tuesday made it all worth it.
“A lot of people said I couldn’t do it, but I did that,” Garrison said. “It’s been a tough four years, but I made it.”
This year’s graduating class was the first to complete Pennsylvania’s new graduation requirements, which opened five new alternate pathways under a 2018 law enacted called Act 158. According to the school district, 88% of this year’s senior class across the city is on track to graduate as of June.
The district said this year, 203 graduating seniors were enrolled in International Baccalaureate programs, 1,200 graduating seniors were dual enrolled in college courses, and 1,672 seniors are entering the workforce with a Career and Technical Education Certification.
“We are so proud of our trailblazing seniors,” Superintendent Tony Watlington said in a statement. “As I visited schools throughout the year I was, and continue to be, inspired by the stories that the seniors shared and the high expectations they set for me as the superintendent, and the District as a whole. These high expectations will have a direct impact on the future of our District and the city.”
Calderone told us Tuesday was “the best day I’ve had in a couple months.” Still, the uncertainty about their building for next year has weighed on him. He’s expecting to give some updates at a school community zoom meeting on Thursday.
“The kids trust us to do the right thing by them and for them,” Calderone said. “The juniors all love the school and they all want to come back and hopefully we can make that happen for them sooner than later.”
Kayla Edwards, a Frankford student with autism, said she’s “in awe” that she “made it this far.”
“The closures really affected me but I got through it,” she said.
Next year, Edwards said she will be attending Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia.
Her mother Shannon said when Kayla started in the ninth grade at Frankford she was really “in her shell,” and the autism program the school offered helped her daughter grow and achieve. She said she hopes that program will be accessible for future students like Kayla.
Nayha Perez, another Frankford graduate, said the closures and disruptions were tough but “it better prepares you for the future. It helps to show you not everything is gonna be a smooth ride.”
Her advice to the students behind her in Frankford’s junior class who still don’t know where they will be attending school next September: “don’t stress yourself out so much because high school is overwhelming but once it’s over, it’s over.”
Calderone, the Frankford principal, stepped up to the podium at graduation when it became clear the students didn’t know what would come next.
“I have one last request,” Calderone said. “You guys failed miserably at the hat toss so we’re gonna count that down for you.”
“Three, two, one,” and the sky filled with red, blue and gold caps.
“That’s about right,” he said.
Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at firstname.lastname@example.org.