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News and Speeches

Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Walcott Celebrate 2013 Remarkable Graduates


178 Students and their Guests Attend the Seventh Annual Reception

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott today hosted a reception for this year’s Remarkable Achievement Award winners and their guests at Tweed Courthouse, the New York City Department of Education headquarters. This year, 178 high school graduates from the Class of 2013 were awarded this distinction.

“Today, more than ever, the pathway to a brighter future runs through our classroom, which is why we have worked to improve the quality of our schools and give every student the opportunity to succeed,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “Our students’ courage and determination is a true inspiration, and I want to congratulate the Chancellor’s Award for Remarkable Achievement recipients as well as all of our high school graduates celebrating their academic achievements this week.”

“One word in particular comes to mind when I think of this year’s Remarkable Graduates – resilience,” said Chancellor Walcott. “I am truly awestruck by these students’ commitment to education, including their capability to stay focused on graduation and move on to college even through times of extreme difficulty and stress. I wish all of this year’s Remarkable Achievement Award winners the best of luck in college next year.”

Since 2006, the New York City Schools Chancellor has honored students who have overcome personal or academic challenges to earn their diplomas and continue onto college. Each high school principal is asked to select one student from his or her school to receive the Remarkable Achievement Award. A selection of their stories is below:

D ‘Andre Holman Turns Tragedy into Success

When D ‘Andre entered Pace High School as a ninth grader, he was a shy and quiet student who rarely spoke in class, doubted his academic skills, and sought to blend into the complex social world of high school. When D ‘Andre was in tenth grade, he lost his mother to emphysema, and months later, lost the closest person in his life to cancer, his aunt.

D ‘Andre courageously took the pain and sadness from these tragic circumstances to grant his mom and aunt their one wish for him – to graduate high school and go on to college. “He quickly learned to live independently and become a more empathetic friend, a better student, and a contemplative thinker,” said Principal See.  He was a transformed young man.

Pace High School was a very supportive environment for D ‘Andre. The small school community provided him with the emotional support he needed to get though a very difficult time in his life. “Pace has been an incredible support system, not just for me but for other students as well. I've seen students make a complete 180 and change for the better because of the close attention the faculty provides us. We're like one big family at Pace High School.”

D ‘Andre, who is captain of the varsity basketball team and director of Pace’s book club, is planning to attend Iona College to study business and pursue a career in sports management.

From Foster Care to College, Demetrius Johnson Beats the Odds

Demetrius Johnson moved from foster home to foster home – over 25 in all – over the course of his life. Demetrius was adopted at six years old by a woman who would later return him back to the foster care system when he was thirteen. “I felt like an object being passed around,” he said. “People kept going in and out of my life. I just felt lonely, crying my eyes out every night.”

With all of this tragedy and constant instability in his life, it is no surprise that Demetrius disregarded schoolwork, turned to drugs and gangs, and eventually landed in a juvenile detention center at the age of sixteen. But that’s when it finally hit him – he needed to make a change.

“I said to myself, ‘If you don’t pull yourself together, you’re going to be either dead or in jail,’” Demetrius explained. “The odds were really out to get me. I decided that if I got out of juvenile detention, I was going to turn things around.”

And that is exactly what he did at Freedom Academy High School, a transfer school in downtown Brooklyn. Demetrius entered Freedom Academy with few credits and a defiant attitude, but once he realized he had the support of school administrators and teachers, he looked through a new lens on life. “People slowly started to believe in me, and I started to build confidence and became optimistic about my situation and my future,” he said. “I didn’t realize how important school was until I got to Freedom Academy. They pulled me out of the darkness.”

Demetrius excelled in all of his classes, but took a particular interest in math. “Trigonometry was really hard for me – I couldn’t even do multiplication correctly when I arrived at Freedom Academy,” he said. “But somehow, every time I would do a big math problem and get it right, I felt like I accomplished something. Math pushes me to my limits.”

Against all odds, Demetrius will attend SUNY Jefferson this coming fall. He hopes to move on to law school and become a lawyer and advocate for children in the foster care system before eventually becoming a judge. “Imagine when I become a judge, and after all that I’ve been through, kids in the same situation can look up to me and say, ‘If that man Demetrius Johnson can make it, why can’t I make it?’”

Faridon Azezollah Aims To Make a Difference in the World

Behind Faridon’s dynamic personality is a tragic story. His father was murdered when he was only 10 years old, and shortly after, his mother fell ill. Despite the tragedy, Faridon courageously stepped up to support his family by working more than 12 hours a day at an eatery in the Bronx throughout junior high and high school. Every weekend, Faridon would leave his home in Queens at five in the morning and take a bus and three trains to get to his job, totaling three hours of travel time each way. The hardship could have distracted him, his grief could have consumed him, and his family’s poverty could have stricken him with hopeless, but Faridon remained resilient.

“I got to a point where I had to make a decision. Am I going to work at an eatery forever or am I going to make something out of my life?” Faridon said he asked himself. He would study for exams and complete school work on his commute to work every weekend. He was determined to turn his life around and become a successful individual. Faridon especially enjoyed his science classes at Preparatory Academy for Writers in Queens. “My science teachers were always in tune with the students,” he said. “They would always associate what we were learning in class to real-world examples. It helped me become more engaged and interested in what I was learning. My science teachers are the ones who inspired me to one day become a doctor.”

Faridon is still deciding between LIU Brooklyn and York College in Queens , but he does know that he will become a successful neurosurgeon. “I want to help save people’s lives and make families happy. I want to inspire other teens to achieve great things.”

Johanna Tamayo Hopes to Instill the Importance of Education in Her Son  

Johanna Tamayo always knew she wanted to go to college after graduating high school, and learning she was pregnant at the age of 16 did not change her aspiration. “Teenage moms mostly drop out from high school,” Johanna said. “I wanted to continue because I want my son to look up to me and follow in my footsteps.”

The decision to stay in school was only the beginning. Johanna’s commute from Staten Island to Aspirations Diploma Plus High School in Brooklyn took nearly two hours each way, and having a baby in tow made things much more complicated. “It was really hard, but my goal was to get to school and be there for my son,” she said.

During the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy, Johanna’s family was deeply affected. She took about three weeks off of school in order to help her family clean up and regroup. “When she returned to Aspirations, it provided her with a sense of normalcy that helped to ground her in the new reality she lived in,” said Celina Acham, her school guidance counselor. Johanna picked up where she left off before Sandy and managed to finish all the work she needed to make up – and move forward with fervor. She stayed late when necessary to get extra help and kept up with her accomplishments closely on the school’s online grading system.

Post-secondary life for Johanna is solidified: she is set to become a member of the Percy Sutton Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK) Program at CUNY York College in Jamaica, Queens. She is excited to embark on her college life and will continue to instill the importance of education in her young son. She hopes to one day become a physician’s assistant.

Kavon Moore O’Neal’s Will and Determination Gets Him to College

During his sophomore year of high school, Kavon and his family lived in a homeless shelter while his mother was confined to a nursing home because of an illness. Kavon never let his family’s circumstances affect his ability to accomplish his personal and academic goals. In fact, they made him stronger.

Kavon is a teen educator in the Teen Outreach Reproductive Challenge (TORCH) Program, which allows him to visit schools and educate teens on the importance of safe sex. He visits hospitals and health clinics to speak with doctors and nurses to help clarify misconceptions about teen behavior. “He is not a bystander, but rather an upstander,” says Leylah Bighach, Kavon’s guidance counselor. “He is one of the key young people who will stand up for any student who is bullied and does so in a sensitive and caring manner. He stands up for what is right and does so with ease, sophistication, and intelligence.”

Kavon plans to attend SUNY Buffalo to study psychology and try out for the school’s football team. He hopes to one day become an NFL player. As for his career afterward, Kavon says he would like to be a relationship counselor.

Family Hardship Motivates Lubna Rahmani Down the Path Towards College

Lubna Rahmani’s responsibilities at home extend far beyond those of the average teenager, but they haven’t hindered her pursuit to become the first in her family to finish high school and go to college. When Lubna’s sister abandoned her newborn baby just days before Lubna’s first day of 10th grade at Townsend Harris High School in Staten Island, Lubna became the main caretaker for the child – feeding, bathing, playing, and reading to the little girl, who is now two and a half years old. “It was very tough the first couple of months, just being a full-time mom and a full-time student,” Lubna said.

For most teenagers, raising a baby and completing schoolwork on time would have been unmanageable, but Lubna exhibited both poise and maturity. On top of all this, she also managed to log over 500 hours of community service at her local public library, helping patrons choose books or assisting younger children with their homework.

Cheryl Kramer, Lubna’s guidance counselor at Townsend Harris, is astounded by Lubna’s resolve and determination. “There were so many times when she might have felt tempted to give up because nobody in her family ever finished high school,” Ms. Kramer said. “She really wants to succeed in order to be a role model for her niece and make something of her life.”

Lubna will attend the CUNY Macaulay Honors College in the fall and hopes to make a positive impact on the world with her education. “I’m going to get a degree,” she said. “I’m going to go to school. I want to do something that I can pass on to the next generation.”

Mark Magrone Learns To Dance in the Rain

Mark Magrone is no stranger to perseverance. At 10, Mark underwent brain surgery after he was diagnosed with a thalamic brain tumor. As a result of the surgery, Mark lost control over the right side of his body and has worked with tenacity to regain use of it. Although he still has weakness on this side, Mark views the experience as one that has affected him positively, and he navigates each obstacle he encounters with the same determination and drive.

Mark was welcomed with open arms by Principal Joseph Canale and Superintendent Aimee Horowitz when he began matriculating at the College of Staten Island High School for International Studies. “They took me under their wing and helped me fly”, said Mark. His teachers and faculty offered him extra help after school, which Mark took full advantage of, and offered him support through the college application process. The school organized many college visits and had a large college fair for students. Mark’s college advisor, Ms. Goodheart, worked diligently with him to help send out his college applications. Mark is grateful for the school’s support helping him, and other students, make educated choices on where to attend college.

Mark is planning to attend SUNY Purchase where he will study film. He hopes to pursue a career in writing and directing films. Mark feels fortunate to have survived his condition and feels that this career path will enable him to share his experiences and express hope for others.  “Sheer willpower will overcome adversity”, Mark said. “As the author Vivian Green stated, ‘Life is not waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.’”

Inspired By Her Past, Binto “Nikki” Jalloh Aspires to Open a Medical Clinic in Sierra Leone

Nikki Jalloh’s accomplishments and her ability to overcome tragedy at such a young age demonstrate nothing short of a miracle. At age 7, Nikki witnessed the murder of her family in Sierra Leone; her mother died in her arms. Her younger brother and grandmother survived, but Nikki was separated from them upon arrival to the United States. She lived with a friend of her deceased mother at first, but was eventually abandoned and became an emancipated minor at the age of 16. She worked late shifts six days a week at a fast food restaurant to make ends meet. “I had to find a place by myself,” Nikki said. “It was really hard. I would literally cry sometimes. I would be so tired by the end of the night.”

But Nikki’s teachers and advisors at Robert F. Kennedy Community High School in Queens (RFK) insist that her strength and determination are unmatched. “She has to survive every single day of her life without anyone whose main purpose is to care for her,” said Jody Popper, her guidance counselor. “She’s very resilient. She’s just completely focused on doing what she has to do to make it work – to graduate high school, to have a job, and to pay her bills. I’ve never heard her complain. She just does it.”

Incredibly, Nikki has managed to not only excel in school and work 40 hours every week – she also plays on the RFK basketball team and has completed 200 hours of community service through volunteering at a hospital, the Beacon Center, and the Citizens’ Committee for Children.

Guidance and support from school advisors both past and present were crucial to Nikki’s success. An assistant principal from Nikki’s middle school is still a strong presence in her life who provides moral and academic support at every opportunity. “She’s my backbone,” Nikki said. “She’s the main reason why I made it this far.”

Nikki plans to move on to Virginia Union University and hopes to eventually become a registered nurse. Her long-term plan is to open a local medical clinic for children in need back in her home country. “I want to help other people,” she said. “When other people are happy, it makes my heart really happy.”

LaGuardia’s Shining Star, Octavia Thompson, Makes Her Way to College

Halfway through her junior year at LaGuardia High School in Manhattan, Octavia Thompson was stricken with a rare disease that forced her into a coma for over six weeks. Octavia’s road to recovery required her to relearn basic skills – how to breathe, eat, walk and dress – which took a huge amount of time away from her education during a crucial period in her high school career.

Octavia eventually made a full recovery after an intense rehabilitation period. In time, she bounced back and started working diligently to make up the credits she lost while in the hospital. Determined to graduate high school on time, Octavia recovered her missing credits in history, English, and other courses through evening classes offered at her school. The courses gave Octavia the gift of time that she lost while in a coma.

Octavia, who lives in a homeless shelter with her family, credits her success to two very important individuals, Barbara Engel and Sandy Faison. Barbara, who she met through LaGuardia’s Alumni and Friends Network, and Sandy, her drama teacher, provided her with the financial and emotional support she needed to graduate. They made sure she took her medicine, made all her doctors’ appointments, and completed the necessary paperwork to apply for college.

Octavia is planning to attend Hofstra University on Long Island to study psychology. Inspired by the love and support she received from therapists during her hospital recovery, she hopes to one day become a child life specialist and help children cope with the challenges of hospitalization, illness, and disability. When asked for a piece of advice to share with other students, Octavia said, “Don’t ever pity yourself or make excuses. If you’re struggling, be an active struggler; do everything you can to improve your situation. Face the challenges, believe in yourself, and you’ll accomplish more than you could ever expect.”

Rahul Awale Finds His Voice

Rahul arrived to the United States from Nepal in September of 2010 with a speech impediment and little understanding of English. Today, Rahul is an accomplished former English language learner (ELL), president of the Academy of Finance and Enterprise’s student government in Queens, and winner of numerous awards for his public presentation skills.

Adjusting to an American education system was tough at first for Rahul. “I wasn’t used to changing classrooms,” said Rahul. “I was accustomed to staying in one room and having teachers rotate. On my first day of school I didn’t leave my first period class and instead sat through a whole lesson for Chinese English language learners. I was so shy, I didn’t want to speak up and leave.” Rahul quickly adapted to his new environment. Through Virtual Enterprise, a class that gives students the opportunity to run a simulated business, Rahul was able to strengthen his public speaking skills, reduce his speech impediment, and learn about the different facets of the business world. “I’m so grateful that my school challenged me from the very beginning. They did not see my ELL status as a handicap. They had faith in me and knew I could succeed if I put my mind to it.”

Rahul is grateful to his mom for being a positive role model and instilling in him the importance of receiving a good education. Rahul plans to attend Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire. He wants to study business and work for companies like Goldman Sachs, Ernst & Young, and Deloitte.

Language and Physical Barriers Can’t Keep Temirzhan Zhomartov From Success

When Temirzhan Zhomartov emigrated with his mother from Kazakhstan to America in 2010, he didn’t speak a word of English. To make matters more complicated, Temirzhan had a pronounced stutter and limited mobility caused by cerebral palsy. This situation might have proved overwhelming for some students or dampened their spirits, but Temirzhan took these challenges in stride and demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt and persevere. He not only learned English, but also managed to make honor roll every semester at Marta Valle High School in Manhattan.

“He is an extraordinary human being,” said Marta Valle Principal Mimi Fortunato. “He is enthusiastic, energetic, absolutely compassionate, and a highly motivated learner.” Temirzhan was an extremely active member of the Marta Valle school community. He came to school on Saturdays to help other students with Regents preparation and tutor younger students in math. Temirzhan not only performed well academically but on the stage as well – he loves to sing, and performed at school concerts every term to standing ovations.

After graduation, Temirzhan will move on to Pace University where he hopes to study web design. His advice to fellow students is simple: don’t be afraid to make mistakes. “We often have negative thoughts, like ‘I’m not good enough,’ or ‘I shouldn’t do this,’” Temirzhan said. “Even if you’ve done something wrong, the most important part is to learn from that mistake. You keep evolving, and next time you’re going to do something better.”

With Sights Set to College, Tiffany Penn Demonstrates Autism Is Not a Constraint

Tiffany Penn began her high school experience in a self-contained special education program in the Bronx. It quickly became clear that in areas of social, emotional, academic, and cognitive ability, Tiffany surpassed her peers, despite her diagnosis of autism.

After having a conversation with her mother about her future, Tiffany realized that something needed to change. “My mom and I were talking one time about college plans and how I wanted to go, and that’s when it clicked,” Tiffany said. “I should ask teachers if I would be able to go to college.”

Guidance counselors helped Tiffany transition into the inclusion program at Lehman High School in the Bronx, where teachers provided her with more challenging work in a general education setting and placed her on a path towards college. According to Jackie Cannino, a guidance counselor at Lehman, Tiffany exceeded expectations every step of the way. She required minimal support, as she comfortably and successfully accepted the challenges, increased responsibilities, and elevated expectations of the general education curriculum.

Ms. Cannino had nothing but praise for Tiffany and her work ethic. “When you want to visualize the perfect student – someone who is well-mannered, caring, polite, hardworking, and willing to push the envelope for herself – that’s her,” Ms. Cannino said.

When she graduates, Tiffany will receive a Regents diploma, a huge accomplishment for any student coming from a self-contained special education environment. She hopes to study pharmaceutical science at Bronx Community College in the fall.

Tiffany encourages her peers to stay positive and focused. “Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something,” she said. “Instead, use your abilities and flaws as a gift.”