Graduation Speech to the SLA Class of 2013

Ladies and gentlemen, parents and friends, teachers and honored guests, what a wonderful evening in an incredible place to celebrate the achievements of an outstanding group of young women and men, the Science Leadership Academy Class of 2013.

Thank you to our partner, The Franklin Institute, led by Chair of the Board of Trustees, Marsha Perelman and CEO Dr. Dennis Wint and to our school’s liaison, Dr. Frederic Bertley. To be partnered with a cultural institution such as this one is to share a belief in the true spirit of inquiry and its continued value in our lives.

And graduates, before we celebrate all that you have done, let us also honor the work of all of those who have helped you reach this moment in time. So please, let us have a round of applause for the parents and friends and teachers and loved ones who have helped you reach this milestone in your life. And parents, thank you for sharing your children with us. It has been our distinct honor and pleasure.

Today represents the culmination of four years of hard work. Moments like this are built for that last core value – reflection. Today, we watched the ninth graders present their Science Fair projects, and I couldn’t help but think of how the cycle of school is ongoing, that those young students are at their first signpost moment of high school… that they will soon sit where you are now, and they will be better for the year they spent with you… from the lessons you imparted to them… and I thought about the iterative process of learning that never ends and how much you have grown through that process.

Four years ago, you came to us as the first class to know SLA as a full school. You were the class that filled the building. I can admit now that I was worried what would happen once the school was filled… would students still hold onto that spirit of creation? The spirit of doing? SLA could not just become “another school,” and that required that your class — this class — to take up the mantle of continuing to drive the sense of innovation, of inquiry, of community and of service that has been the hallmark of our school since it opened. I can say now, as we sit here to celebrate all that you have done, that you took up that mantle powerfully. You all have set Science Leadership Academy on a course well into that future where the students and teachers that you inspired know that ours is a school powered by the energy and ideas and intelligence of the students who inhabit its halls.

Let us step back and think about all that you have done.

You have completed nearly 10,000 benchmark projects over the last four years. And at least three or four of them were completed before the night before they were due.

You have been Student Assistant Teachers in over forty 9th and 10th grade classes, helping students in class, in our halls, on Facebook and anywhere you were needed – guaranteeing that our younger students know what it means to go to SLA.

You created SLAMedia.org — setting a standard for on-line student journalism for high schools all over the world.

You have furthered the partnership with The Franklin Institute, creating Project SPACE, teaching 9th graders, presenting at the National Science Teachers Association conference and setting a new standard for how our students interface with the people of this institution.

You have furthered Rough Cut Productions, creating original documentaries, short films and filming 100s of hours of SLA functions.

You have created a permanent art gallery in the third floor ballroom, created a mosaic that will hang for years to come, and have pushed us to consider what happens when students treat the very halls and walls of their school as a gallery of their ideas.

You created an incredible robotics team that exceeded everyone’s expectations in its first year in existence. But that should come as no surprise, as it seemed like no matter where the bar was set, you all always exceeded it.

You have met Michael Dell, and, by the way, we were told that your questions were among the best he has ever had.

You have run thousands of miles with Students Run Philly Style, running the Philly Marathon, the Broad Street Run, and so many Saturday morning training runs that I am tired just thinking about it.

You have played — and won — on the fields and courts of Philadelphia, never letting the lack of a gym or a home field stand in the way of your desire and ability to compete, always wearing SLA’s colors with pride and representing us with dignity.

You have spoken truth to power – rallying in the streets, speaking at SRC meetings, and going to City Council to ensure that your voice was heard when it came time to support public education in your city.

You have hosted thousands of educators from all over the world who came to see how you learn. They often came skeptical that high school students could do what you do, speak the way you speak, learn the way you learn, but to a person, they left convinced, recommitted to the idea that schools should be places where students — and learning — matter greatly.

And last week, you presented the culminating work of your time at Science Leadership Academy – your capstones. The projects were as varied as you all are. You created businesses, you wrote original plays, you created engineering projects, you put on events, you did profound scientific research, you curated galleries of your artwork. In all, you took our core values – inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection – and applied them to your own ideas, your own passions, and in doing so, created incredible artifacts of your learning. You stood in front of your community and said, “This is the scholar I have become. This is what I can do.” And in doing so, you reminded all of us of what young people can do when given the freedom and the support to dream big.

And you have done all of this in the shadow of the most challenging times the School District has ever known. During your tenure in high school, the School District of Philadelphia has lost nearly one billion dollars in revenue, and that has translated into the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars for our school. When you started, SLA had a librarian. All our Spanish classes were taught by real, live human beings. We offered more science electives, and we didn’t really have to ask, “Do we have the money for this?” very often. To my eyes, your accomplishments over the past four years are proof to any politician of why public education is so vital, so important. You have proven over and over again what kids can do when given the resources they need.

And while tonight is a night for celebration and reflection, it is also a night to look forward. You have completed one chapter of your life tonight, but it is our hope that the lessons you have learned with us propel you into whatever comes next. You are our hope now. For the parents and families and teachers gathered with you today, you represent our best chance, our best ideals, our most hopeful promise that the world tomorrow can be better than it is today.

You must remember that inquiry means asking the hard questions, not just of yourself, but of others. And you must remember that the true spirit of inquiry means never settling for the easy or trite answers, but rather seeking out those small “t” truths that will lead to new ideas and new solutions.

You must have the humility to understand that we all stand on the shoulders of giants, and your humility must lead you to research what others before you have discovered, so that you do not repeat the mistakes of the past. We need you to, after all, make new and more interesting mistakes than the ones we have made.

You must remember that we are better together than we are apart and seek out collaboration. You must understand that the complexity of the challenges we face are more powerfully understand when viewed through the lens of many, not the lens of one.

You must continue to make your voice heard. And no, I can’t imagine that will be a problem for you all, but when you make your voice heard, remember that presentation is a two-way street. Continue to speak for the purpose of educating your listeners. Keep working to make your voices inclusive, so that others can pick up your cause, your idea, your voice, and echo and amplify it for many more.

No matter busy you get, no matter how important the work you are doing is, you must remember to take the time for reflection. For it is when we reflect on our actions, on the world around us, that we can process and learn from what we have done. Never be in such a rush to do, to create, to lead, that you lose sight of the importance of listening, of stillness, of the wise counsel of others, so that you can always be thoughtful about what you have done and what you have left to do.

And, of course, make sure you remember that unspoken sixth core value – care. So many of you have spoken about how SLA is a family – granted, often a dysfunctional one – but a family nonetheless. That is because we all — adults and students alike — took the time to care for one another. Indeed, this fall, when I was in need, you all let me know just how cared for I really was. Thank you.

All of us here have benefitted from being in a caring environment where questions like, “What do you think?,” “How do you feel?” and “What do you need?” are not admissions of weakness, but rather of strength. So know this… To listen deeply to others, to thoughtfully construct answers, and to create solutions that empower many – that is the heart of what we have tried to teach you over these four years, and as I look upon you now, I am reminded of dozens of instances where you all have taken that challenge and succeeded gloriously.

And that matters, because we need you now. Much as we urged you not to simply view high school as preparation for real life, nor can you view the next stage of your life that way either. The work you do, the challenges you embark upon, the causes you champion once you leave our halls matter. You are our best hope for the future. In our classes, in our hallways and on many Facebook chats and Moodle forums, we have discussed the challenges our world faces. The world cannot wait for you to take them on.

Because, not to put too fine a point on it, the world needs you. We face challenges in our schools, in our city, in our country, in our world, that will require the best from those who have the passion to create change and the skills to do it. You do not have the luxury of hoping that other people will say what must be said, do what is needed, work to make the world a better place. That is not the world we have left you. You must be smarter than we have been, more compassionate than we have been able to be, and braver than we can imagine.

But as I look upon you now, I see a group of young men and women more than able to rise to the challenge. You have accomplished so much in your four years with us, and it is only a beginning. On behalf of the entire SLA faculty, we are so proud of all you have done, and we cannot wait to see what you do next. Congratulations to the Class of 2013. Long may you shine.

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