One by one, the graduating seniors at Uncommon Collegiate Charter High School strutted across the stage of the packed auditorium to the sound of their favorite song, stood in front of a mic, and shouted, “In the fall, I’ll be attending…,” as they unfurled a t-shirt with the name of college.
The crowd of families, friends and underclassmen who packed the auditorium roared in approval for every one of the 59 graduating seniors, every single one of them headed to a four-year college.
The raucous, celebratory event known as senior signing day is similar to the rallies that many schools hold when their students are accepted to a NCAA Division 1 college on an athletic scholarship and many schools in New York City have adopted the practice for their graduating classes as well.
At Uncommon Collegiate, the day is special and one graduating seniors have looked forward to since their freshman year.
“Over the course of your four years, I’ve worked in the hallways and I’ve seen you develop into strong, independent thinkers,” boasted Livia Angiolillo, the school’s co-founder and director of operations. “You are individuals, you are creative, hilarious and downright brilliant. Thank you for being you and thank you for sharing yourselves with us.”
Housed in the old Boys High School building, , 832 Marcy Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Uncommon Collegiate is part of the Uncommon network, one of the city’s largest operators of charter schools. It operates four high schools in Brooklyn and 19 elementary and middle schools.
The schools in the network focus on maintaining high standards and on getting students, many of them low-income, into and through four-year colleges.
Uncommon Collegiate’s senior signing day for the 2018 class proved to be a culmination for everything the school represents.
“From here on, you will be strong representatives of UCC,” Angiolillo said.
And that’s the roll Folusho Olawole sees herself in, as she enters the pre-health program at Franklin & Marshall College with an eye on becoming a nurse or a pediatric surgeon. A Nigerian immigrant, Folusho learned from watching her grandmother work as a nurse and saw severe limited health care options in a third-world setting.
“I want to open up clinics in developing countries because I come from a developing country,” she said. “People pay for their medical needs out-of-pocket and they’re not getting the care they need. I see children who would benefit from universal health care, particularly when they aren’t of a certain economic status.”
Folusho began attending Uncommon Schools in 2009 as a 5th-grader and points to her eight years as paving her professional path as well as directly informing her worldview.
“I came here and race was always a big factor and so we would talk about race and how we navigate as minority students and how to build our own narrative,” she said.
That eventually grew into a monthly in-school gathering where students would discuss “what it means to be black in America and how we can build our own identities,” Folusho said. “I realize I was fortunate to enter Uncommon and get these opportunities to build on my love for medicine and social activism.”
Karon Gray, who is attending Clarkson University in the fall, said the pre-graduation showing of support was unlike anything other schools did and helped to encourage students as they take their next step.
“We are celebrating our achievements but we’re also acutely aware of the magnitude of this transition into college,” Karon said. “Many of us are the first members of our families to go to college so the fact that the school goes out of its way to emphasize that accomplishment speaks volumes to what the Uncommon’s priorities are,” he said.
In fact, 76 percent of Uncommon Collegiate Charter’s seniors are the first in their families to attend college, according to Flosha Tejada, the school’s director of college completion and a member of Uncommon Collegiate’s class of 2010.
“These are incredibly fearless individuals and each has deserved and earned a place at each of these colleges,” she said.
Omowunmi Awelewa, who will attend Williams College next fall and has also attended Uncommon schools since the 5th grade, said Uncommon has placed students on a “trajectory for success.
“College education is the most important thing when you’re trying to find a job and trying to make a difference in society,” Omowunmi said. “They said you find yourself in college and while that may be true, I think we’ve been given the opportunity to find ourselves long before that. That allows to be clear-eyed as we take this next step.”
On the whole, Uncommon Collegiate Charter High School’s class of 2018 is only borrowing on average $4,800-per-year in student loans, a point Tejada emphasized in illustrating the level of scholarships granted to the school’s seniors.
“They are automatically creating paths for themselves; they are trailblazers and are filled with joy and hope,” she said.