FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — It had been more than 50 years since anyone graduated from Walkertown High School – until Saturday, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
The class of 2014 walked across the stage in the new Walkertown High School – one of 11 graduations held in Forsyth County Saturday – carrying on a legacy that was put on hold decades earlier and one that Walkertown residents have been waiting for ever since.
The class of 1962 was the last to do it, before the school system decided to close the old Walkertown High School and in favor of consolidating students in larger high schools.
“To say this is an exciting and special day in an understatement,” said Doc Davis, mayor of Walkertown.
Davis went to the old Walkertown high for just one year before it was closed. He graduated from East Forsyth High School.
“But I never stopped dreaming of one day having our high school back in Walkertown,” he said.
That dream was fully realized Saturday morning, when the school’s class of fewer than 100 graduates walked across the auditorium stage in front of family and friends. Walkertown is a small school in a close-knit community, and there were cheers and claps after each and every name that was called.
One graduate, Paris France, said the school was like a family.
“We really became close,” she said. “It’s emotional, getting ready to leave everyone I’ve been with since elementary.”
It was a emotional day, too, for principal Jay Jones. Not only was this his first graduating class at Walkertown – it was his first graduating class ever. Jones was the principal at Walkertown Elementary before taking over at the high school this year.
“It’s very special,” he said, giving the commencement address. “You guys will always be my first.”
The importance was not lost on the graduates, either. Valedictorian Caleb Foote and salutatorian Garrett Locklear remarked on the importance of the occasion in their speeches. It was on the minds and lips of graduates as they filed out to continue the celebration, gathering in the halls outside the auditorium.
“It’s definitely something I’ll never forget,” said graduate Nick Haithcox.
Haithcox came to Walkertown after a year at East Forsyth and said he fell in love with the smaller-school environment at Walkertown.
“The teachers really care,” he said. “They know you by name. It’s a great school.”
Kennedy High School
Saturday also marked the first graduating class for John F. Kennedy High School. Twenty seniors accepted their diplomas during a ceremony at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts.
Lizabeth Vasquez, the Student Government Association president, called the school’s first graduation a “moment of celebration” for everyone, but mostly for her and her classmates in the Class of 2014.
A few years ago, Kennedy transitioned from being a middle school, known as Kennedy Learning Center, to a career/technical high school. Some of the graduates had been at the school since the middle school years, including Champaign McFadden.
“I feel great, at the same time I feel sad,” she said after graduating. “I feel I’m leaving everyone behind.”
She said she liked the small classes at Kennedy because students got extra attention.
“I think this is the best school I’ve ever been to,” she said.
Mayor Allen Joines was the keynote speaker. He advised the graduates to learn to recognize opportunity, be life-long learners and pursue joy, not just happiness.
Principal Leslie Alexander told the graduates she will miss them, but she is excited for them.
“We feel blessed to have watched the steps you have taken in your high school years,” Alexander said.
After Alexander declared them to graduates, the students tossed their purple caps into the air, almost reaching the roof of the SECCA auditorium.
Then the graduates filed out to a processional by Johannes Brahms, a traditional overture. But it wasn’t long before the mood shifted and the auditorium was filled with the sounds of Pharrell Williams’ hit song “Happy.”
Atkins High School
At the same time, another students in another small but memorable class were collecting their diplomas. The senior class at Atkins Academic and Technology High School contained only 66 graduates but they made a lasting impression on the school.
Joe Childers, the principal said that the class was “a wonderful group of kids.” Other staff members said that the students meshed together very well and supported one another.
During the graduation ceremony, John Davenport, the vice chairman of the Winston-Salem Forsyth County Board of Education congratulated the seniors, wished them well and told the families, “Now you’ll have some extra space in your house.”
Childers told the students that they had worked hard, and focused on academics. He told them that studies show in the next 20 years they could have 10 to 14 jobs but they had developed a good foundation to be continuous learners.
“We’re proud of you,” Childers said.
The main speakers of the day were Bill Ngandu Mwaniki, the salutatorian and Meredith Ellen Hemphill, the valedictorian. Hemphill was awarded the Montague Medal for having the highest quality point average at Atkins.
Mwaniki reminded his classmates that they had started off in the ninth grade, nervous and a little overwhelmed. But over the four years they had matured (“most of us”) and are ready to become independent adults. He told his classmates to make good choices and take risks.
“We never know what’s around the corner unless you peek,” Mwaniki said. “Focus on making a good impact.”
Hemphill reminded the class about how much had changed in the four years at Atkins. Some of the students who started out with them transferred or dropped out.
“We survived,” she said. ‘We are the tough ones. We’ve won the game of life, part one.
She said that what you plan today may not be what happens tomorrow.
“Life is one long, strange trip. Hemphill said. Do your best and never forget where you came from.”
Parkland High School
The last four years have been memorable ones for the 315 graduates of Parkland High School, which has seen both academic and athletic success.
Tim Lee, recently retired principal of Parkland, returned to give the commencement address. In the nearly nine years Lee spent at Parkland, he said he watched the school grow with the successes of its students.
“(Parkland) was once labeled a low-performing, high need, turnaround high school,” Lee said. “Now it’s considered a high-flying school. It’s an amazing testament to what can be accomplished.”
Students, family and friends celebrated those achievements Saturday afternoon at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum Annex in boisterous fashion.
“There’s a lot of wild people,” said graduate Michael Dupre, affectionately. “They’re loud, but they’ve got very good personalities.”
Coming from a military family, Dupre said that Parkland was his third high school in four years. He came to Parkland for his senior year and said the school’s welcoming attitude enabled him to make fast friends.
Featuring the International Baccalaureate program, Parkland is Winston-Salem/Forsyth County’s magnet school for internationalism and the arts, allowing it to attract students from around the county. That’s what makes the school special, said graduate Sidney Fadel, who along with classmate Sophie Rupp, was co-valedictorian.
“I wanted to be at a school where everyone came from different backgrounds,” Fadel said.
The makeup of the school allows students to learn, both in and out of the classroom, the kinds of lessons they’ll take with them whether they’re looking for work after graduation – like Robert Patterson – or going to school like Kelvin Jackson.
“You get all these people from different backgrounds to come together,” Jackson said. “It allows us to share our experiences, to become more open-minded.”
Mount Tabor High School
Mount Tabor graduate Beau Lewis has had more than her share of struggles, but that only makes the victory of graduating that much sweeter, she said.
In the past four years, Lewis has attended four different high schools, navigated her parents’ divorce and had to overcome her apartment burning down.
But despite it all, Lewis has remained positive, and her struggles have made her even more determined to make a difference in the world. She said she hopes to pursue a career as an expert witness to ensure that justice is served for the less fortunate.
“After all I’ve been through, I’ve learned to count your blessings and never give up,” Lewis, 17, said. “I’ve had a lot of challenges, but I kept going. It means the world to me to finally be here.”
About 390 students received diplomas.
Rosanna Stewart, a Mount Tabor graduate, was equally excited about graduating.
To her, graduation was the celebration of all she had overcome and the growth she had experienced as an individual.
“High school changed me from someone who cared about getting A’s to someone who cared about actually learning,” she said. “Getting exposed to all the new people helped me overcome my shyness. There’s no doubt about it, high school changed me.”
Stewart found her niche on the Mount Tabor varsity softball team, which she played on all four years. She said her high school experience has taught her a lot about herself and about life.
“I’ve learned to make the most out of everything and to live in the moment,” Stewart, 18, said. “High school went by so fast, I can’t believe it’s over.”
North Forsyth High School
Willie Mack, a graduate at North Forsyth, didn’t think graduation would ever come, but after all the ups and downs, it had finally arrived.
“High school was fun, emotional, challenging and everything in between,” Mack, 18, said. “It’s electrifying to be here today, knowing that I did it.”
Mack spent his last four years juggling a demanding schedule: school all day, part-time job to help pay the bills, AP homework, maybe a few hours of sleep and repeat.
“The hardest thing was just not giving up when things got rough,” he said. “It was stressful, but I worked hard and it paid off.”
About 350 students received diplomas.
North Forsyth graduate Abigail Cortez is well accustomed to the rigors of high school life.
Between AP classes and receiving her nursing certification while in high school, she had her fair share of late nights.
“There’s been a lot of tears, but a lot of fun too,” Cortez, 20, said. “I loved every moment of high school, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
For Cortez, the hardest part about high school was the college application process, she said.
As an undocumented citizen, she knew that financial aid wasn’t an option and she was unable to apply for a lot of scholarships, so that limited her choices.
But through hard work and perseverance, Cortez was able to accomplish a full-ride to Wake Forest University, which she will attend in the fall. She will study health and exercise science and would like to become a physician’s assistant.
“I always dreamed of going to Wake Forest, but I never thought I’d get there because it’s so expensive,” she said. “I’ve realized that if you really fight hard for your dreams, they will come true.”
Reagan High School
Jocelyn Culbreath, a Reagan graduate, knows the importance of fighting for your dreams.
She will become the first person in her family to go to college.
Culbreath will attend Campbell University in Buies Creek on an athletic scholarship for track and field. She plans to major in biology.
“My parents always drilled into my head the importance of an education,” she said Saturday. “I’ve been waiting for this day since I walked into Reagan 1,460 days ago–yes I counted–so it’s a blessing to be here.”
Although her journey to graduation was long, she said it was well worth it–a sentiment Reagan graduate Thorne Krieglmann shared.
Throughout his senior year, his graduation status remained uncertain at best and he had to retake a few classes in order to be eligible for graduation. Through hard work, Krieglmann was able to get his grades up, but in the end, his graduating came down to one final exam.
“Luckily, I studied hard and I passed, but it was shaky,” Krieglmann, 18, said. “My advice is to work hard and do your best because it’s worth it in the end.”
About 415 students received diplomas.
As the last of 11 Winston-Salem Forsyth County School graduations on Saturday, Reagan student speaker Kaitlin Ehler-Volpe was able to sum up the celebrations with a bit of advice to her fellow graduates.
“No matter what obstacles we face in life, you are the only person who can choose to be happy,” she said. “This is the first day of the rest of our lives, go out and live.”