For Graduates of City's New Schools, Tradition Is What They Say It Is

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The 2012 sign buoyantly crowning the stage was borrowed from another graduation. The school’s bachata-infused theme song -- which a new graduate belted out in Spanish -- had made its debut only weeks earlier. And the yearbook, which painstakingly clocked everything from the school’s Crazy Hair Day to Pajama Day, was late.

What didn’t come late were the long, silky flags from Ecuador, Mexico and the Dominican Republic that students draped over their shoulders as they marched purposefully toward a balloon-infested stage to receive their high school diplomas.

Such was the joyous, poignant and sometimes ad hoc state of affairs at the first graduation for the Pan American International High School at Monroe, a four-year-old school in the Bronx which serves Spanish-speaking students new to the country.

The ceremony was one of 24 held over the past few days for high schools that graduated their first class this spring. The schools are part of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s new schools initiative. Since taking office, he has opened more than 500 new schools and closed or begun phasing out more than 100 poor-performing ones.

On Tuesday, an English teacher, Derek “Nacho” Nason, told the Pan American students they had been “pioneers,” willing to partake in “an experiment” -- a thought that echoed across similar graduations over the past few days as seniors solidified new ceremonial traditions and celebrated the power of being first. At the same time, principals and staff members marked the end of school life with students who had been there with them from the onset.

“They have been at the school literally every single day since we started,” said Jaime Dubei, the principal at Queens Collegiate in Jamaica, a college prep school, speaking of her 65 or so graduates. “It’s amazing. It’s also kind of sad for me.”

Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott said on Tuesday that it was “amazing” to see how “excited our new school graduates are” about being firsts, and he thanked the students for “setting high expectations for future classes.”

Because these new schools tend to be small and theme-based, many of the graduations were held in unique spaces, designed to commemorate not only the premier graduating class, but also the school's place in the city.

The ceremony for the High School for Medical Professions, in Carnarsie, was housed in a neighborhood hospital where seniors had spent time volunteering.

The historic Flushing Town Hall hosted the ceremony for the Civic Leadership Academy in Elmhurst, Queens.

Ellis Island was the graduation site for students at the English Language Learners and International Support Preparatory Academy -- known as ELLIS in the Bronx, one of 15 city schools run by the Internationals Network, which prepares immigrants 16 and over for college. Pan American is also an Internationals school.

And students at the Academy for Careers in Television & Film in Long Island City, Queens, received their diplomas inside a Director’s Guild of America amphitheater on West 57th Street in Manhattan.

All the events, principals said, provided a time to celebrate their first class, but also the original vision of their young institutions.

“It’s as much about the accomplishments of the students as it is about the collective accomplishment of building a school,” said Mark Dunetz, the principal and founder of the Academy for Careers in Television & Film.

For administrators, the road to graduation has encompassed everything from outfitting classrooms with furniture to developing a four-year curriculum, training teachers, formulating a staff culture and developing teaching techniques.

For Mr. Nasson of Pan American, it has meant discovering that his original routine for quieting rowdy students -- doing the "The Lobo Loco" or Crazy Wolf, a hand gesture that included making a hooting sound -- riled students up more than it calmed them down. After his first year at the school, he reminded graduates that he began using the more effective term: "Freezado!" It was an example, he said, of how everyone was learning along the way.

For students, being part of a new school meant designing the student council, instituting annual traditions during the school year, deciding on school colors, school cheers and events.

It also meant discovering, in the case of Pan American, that if you order the yearbook in May, it won't be there on time for graduation day. "You have to order it in April," said a graduate, Seryely Pinal, 17, who helped organize this week's events. She is planning on passing on the information to next year's graduates.

Planning their school’s first graduation ceremonies meant major preparations for students, some pitfalls and the added responsibility of setting the tone for younger classmates by coming up with specific ideas that could set their school's event apart from others.

At Queens Collegiate, housed in an elegant 1920s building in Jamaica, students followed their Tuesday graduation by filing past younger classmates on Wednesday morning, climbing up into the school’s bell tower and ringing the historic building’s 90-year-old bell, a tradition that seniors at other schools in the building will also participate in.

At the Academy for Careers in Television & Film, students decided to mark their ceremony with a sleek-looking video montage of their work.

And at the School for Classics: An Academy of Thinkers, Writers and Performers in East New York, Brooklyn, student planners decided to institute a rose dedication ceremony, where students presented roses to friends and family members who have guided them along the way.

“They wanted to find a moment where they could stop and be thankful,” said the principal, Janice Ross, who said 49 of her 54 seniors -- close to 85 percent -- graduated this week.

The theme song for that graduation was the Lee Ann Womack pop hit “I Hope You Dance,” which Ms. Ross said was fitting for a new school creating its own curriculum, styles and traditions. “The song is all about taking chances,” she said.

At the Pan American ceremony on Tuesday, many of the 27 graduates on stage had arrived in New York with little English and, in some cases, little schooling before enrolling. Their freshman year, they were joined by close to 70 other students, but many have since returned home, for economic reasons or because of the added challenges of experiencing teenage life in a new milieu with limited finances, according to the assistant principal, Elisabeth Levi.

Of those still at the school this past fall, only three failed to graduate with the rest, Ms. Levi said.

After the ceremony, graduates huddled together in the school lobby, clutching packaged roses and stuffed animals with mini graduation caps on their heads, and mused about their last four years -- and their futures.

Dorly Ixcoy Tayun, 18, said she was pleased to be part of the first Pan American class, but even more excited about being the first woman in her family to attend college, the New Community College at CUNY, also a new school.

“I’m excited about that,” she said, a necklace with a small, shimmering star dangling from her neck.

Then she and her brother, Orlando, 19, who also graduated, dashed upstairs, for more celebrating.