By William Kaempffer
NEW HAVEN — About 1,055 young people received diplomas Tuesday from nine public high schools, the city’s largest graduating class in decades.
James Hillhouse High School valedictorian Toddchellecq Young is off to Georgetown on a full scholarship to pursue a career in medicine.
Hill Regional Career High valedictorian Neda Shahriari will attend Harvard on a full scholarship with the same goal.
Wilbur Cross valedictorian Shira Winter will go to Yale.
"This is shaping up to be one of the best classes we’ve had," said schools spokeswoman Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo, ticking off some of the accomplishments of the class of 2008 as more than 260 Hillhouse seniors lined up for the processional.
They were some of the same accomplishments her boss’s boss, Mayor John DeStefano Jr., rattled off a few minutes later at the microphone at the New Haven Field House at Hillhouse: 85 percent of the graduates planned to continue their education at two- or four-year colleges; 231 students took 255 college courses for college credit; seniors earned a combined $8 million worth of scholarships.
"Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen lots of graduations in lots of towns across the state, but no graduating class anywhere reflects the talent, the resilience, the determination of this country more than this class of 2008 in this field house," DeStefano told the Hillhouse graduates to cheers.
In all, the city played host to nine graduation ceremonies large and small Tuesday: Eighty seniors graduated from the Cooperative Arts and Humanities high school; 268 from Hillhouse; 157 from Hill Regional Career; 73 from High School in the Community; 32 from Hyde Leadership; 38 from Metropolitan Business; 18 from New Haven Academy; 65 from the Sound School; and 350 from Wilbur Cross, the biggest of the city’s high schools.
Every graduate at the New Haven Academy is college-bound this year, according to the Board of Education.
Travis Velez, 18, probably will go into the military, his father, Roberto, said outside the field house. The family moved from Queens, N.Y., last year looking for a lower cost of living, and Velez attended Hillhouse for his senior year.
They’d hoped he would enroll at a community college after graduation, but even that tuition was too steep. The hope is that he’ll complete a couple tours in Iraq, come home and have the government pay for college, the father said.
"It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is," he said. But Tuesday was for celebration.
"Of course, I’m very proud," the father said.
The sense of accomplishment and self-satisfaction was clear at Hillhouse, which at times is stigmatized by the violence that goes on around it. A theme of many of the speakers was overcoming obstacles to realize goals.
Young described the feeling Tuesday as "amazing." Her mother struggled to raise four children alone and life wasn’t always easy.
"It’s not easy. It’s still not easy. But I’m blessed. I had to look outside my current situation at home," she said before the ceremony. "God expects so much out of me, and my goal is to become a doctor."
Aurora Wright, the valedictorian at Riverside Academy, whose graduation was combined with Hillhouse, is a teen mother who was raised by her grandmother. Ultimately, she made a decision to pursue education, and with the support of teachers and counselors, she willed her way to graduation, her counselor said. She plans to attend Albertus Magnus next year and study criminal justice.
During Wright’s speech, her school counselor, Cindy Andrien, hands clasped under her chin, glowed with pride. She’d listened to Wright practice her speech all week. "I thought she just hit it out of the ballpark," she said.
"She has captured my heart. I just think she persevered and just took on any challenge that she was confronted with," said Andrien. "She’s an incredibly independent young woman and strong."