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 2015.
Thank you to our partner, The Franklin Institute, led by Chair of the Board of Trustees, Don Morel and CEO Larry Dubinsky and 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 all of 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 to teach them.
As Mr. Best referenced, your time at SLA has been one of the most challenging times in the School District of Philadelphia. In your time, you have seen over one billion dollars of cuts to the district’s budget which has resulted in the closure of dozens of schools, the layoffs of thousands of teachers, the cutting of many programs, such that, you’ve never known SLA to have a librarian or extra science electives, and often, what you have known was a school that had to ask, “How can we do more with less,” as opposed to, “How can we make sure that we can do all we know we can do.” Year after year, you had to stand with your school and fight for the resources you deserved in your education – in fact, fight for your teachers’ jobs. And year after year, when we needed you, you stood with us. And in ways that humbled us in ways I cannot describe, you told us that it was because when you needed us, we were there for you.
Throughout this city, the narrative of public education in your time in high school has been one of deprivation and loss, and yet, each of you stands before us today as a shining example of the resilience and strength and brilliance of the children of Philadelphia. Each of you stand as a sharp rebuke to those who would say that the children of this city do not deserve more. Each of you can speak powerfully to what the children of this city, when supported by teachers who care for them, can achieve in their high school careers.
You, the Class of 2015, along with the teachers who have walked this walk with you, have sent a clear and powerful message to all those who would say that public education in Philadelphia is not worth funding. You have made it clear that our schools, your education… your lives matter. And it is my hope that the active, vigorous education that has been your SLA experience means that your voice for the need for a fully funded, fully realized educational experience for all our nation’s children will be heard in the halls of power in our city and beyond for years and years to come.
Because your class – more so than any class that has come before you – has made itself heard far beyond the walls of our school, into the halls of power in this city. Just recently, Dr. Hite told me that, no matter what meetings he goes to, it seems like there are students from SLA there advocating for the causes they believe in. You all have shown the adults of this city that the ideas and voices of young people can power not just the future of this city, but its present as well. You have not been willing to wait your turn to lead. You have done so now, and it is my profound hope that you will continue to do so, in our city, on college campuses across this nation, and wherever your lives may lead.
But before you go… let us engage in that last core value – reflection – one last time, and let us think about all you have accomplished in your time at SLA. You came to us four years ago as a group of individuals, with all your different elementary school experiences. You represented over sixty different schools from all over our city, and you came together to be one class – one school. And all of you shared a vision of your high school experience that believed that school could be more than what so many kids across our city and across our nation experience. It is time to think today about what that has meant… what that has looked like… and what 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 spent over 20,000 hours at your Individualized Learning Programs, working at hospitals, and schools and businesses and universities all over our city.
You have been Senior Assistant Teachers in over fifty 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 have taken part in Rough Cut Productions, creating some of the most polished and original films this school has ever seen, all while capturing the life of this school – including filming tonight’s graduation.
You have written dozens of articles for SLAMedia.org – creating an example of student journalism for all to see.
You have spoken out against injustice and brutality, organizing rallies and die-ins and protests and worked tireless on political campaigns, again showing our city that the easy narrative of the apathy of youth simply does not apply.
You have crafted yourselves onto the very canvas of our school, creating murals and spaces that will make us think of you and tell your stories long after you have left our walls.
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 completed engineering projects – including designing a water purification system for use in Cambodia. And I would speak in great depth about those many projects… except I don’t fully understand them well enough to explain them.
You represented SLA at the National Championships of Debate – marking the first time in history that students from the Philadelphia public schools have competed in that tournament.
You have gone further in the baseball playoffs than any team in SLA history, with a magical run through an undefeated regular season. You led a girls soccer team to Class 2A Public League Championship, beating schools that were four times the size of our school along the way. You made the playoffs in Girls Volleyball, Boys Soccer and Girls Basketball. And of course, you finished third in the state in Girls Ultimate and 11th in the state in Boys Ultimate – both higher finishes than any team in SLA history in any sport. In all, you have competed all over 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 – the best of what student-athleticism can be.
You have also spent more time in the ballroom than any class in SLA’s history, and I think your senior teachers might still feel some kind of way about that.
And despite that, you have received over 400 acceptance letters to universities and colleges across this country, and you have received offers of millions of dollars of scholarship money. You will be going to 53 different schools in sixteen different states, as well as representing us in our home state as well. Your class represents the largest ever SLA incoming classes at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pittsburgh.
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 barely a day goes by without an educator reaching out to me, telling me about how you all have changed how they teach, changed what the do. Your work, your passion, the example you have set has made school better for thousands of young women and men across our country.
And earlier this 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 ran tournaments, you created original films, you hosted mayoral debates, you helped make science education accessible to children in Paraguay, you built a smart bee hive, you made original music, you taught other children about issues of importance and passion to you, you curated galleries of your art. 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 again, you have done all of this at a time when politicians are saying that the children of Philadelphia do not deserve the financial resources of the districts at border our boundaries. I believe that your work will forever stand as testimony. And it is my hope that you will continue your advocacy for all of Philadelphia’s children – if not children everywhere – to be able to engage in the kind of education we share at SLA.
Because while tonight is a night for celebration and reflection, it is also a night to be forward thinking. 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.
So, if you will indulge me one more time… let me leave you with some thoughts on how you may go about the profound challenge of trying to change the world… because I have no doubt that you will continue to do so.
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 remember those moments of the past four years when you challenged yourself and those around you to discover new ideas, to shed old illusions and create anew our world.
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 keep in mind the path you have traveled, the pitfalls as well as the successes, because it is that humility, that notion that our shared humanity – our moments of frailty – that will keep us grounded in the world, in the notion that each and all of us have value.
And that means that 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 understood when viewed through the lens of many, not the lens of one. You have walked for four years in a community that values — and at times struggles with — the diversity of voices that make up the rich tapestry of our school and our city. We all are better for listening to each other and informing each other’s voice. That idea — of collaboration — of diversity — of coming together — is at the heart of how we will all make the world a better place.
And to do make the world a better place, you must continue to make your voices 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. Ideas do not live in isolation. I know that all of you will have the courage of your conviction, and the passion and voice to speak your truths to those who must hear them.
And I urge you, no matter how 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, at times a dysfunctional one – but a family nonetheless. That is because we all — adults and students alike — took the time to care for one another. The hallmark of the SLA community is how often you see students and teachers caring for one another.
Because 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. In our classes, in our hallways and on many Facebook and Twitter chats, we have discussed the challenges our world faces. And just as you never simply viewed high school as preparation for the rest of your 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, because you truly are what we hope for our SLA graduates – you are thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind. And you are — all of you — what the world needs.
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 women and men more than able to rise to that 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 Science Leadership Academy Class of 2015. Long may you shine.