published Saturday, May 16th, 2009

Chattanooga: School marks 78th and final graduation

by Kelli Gauthier
  • photo
    Staff Photo by Dan Henry Graduates toss their mortar boards during the 21 Century Prep School's final graduation ceremony held at the Tivoli Theater on Friday. Twenty-four seniors graduated from the K-12 magnet school which has been in existence since 1994.

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When it comes to the stages of grief, the students and faculty of 21st Century Academy seem to have arrived at acceptance.

After the Hamilton County Board of Education voted in March to close the K-12 school, many say they experienced shock, pain and anger, but at this point, there is nothing anyone can do.

“At first I was sad, but I’m still going to get to graduate. It’s not going to be as comfortable, but I can handle it,” said junior Delphine Westmoreland, who plans to attend either Brainerd High or Tyner Academy next year. “The majority of us are over it. We just have to accept it.”

Along with six other 11th-grade girls, Ms. Westmoreland was to sing “I Believe I Can Fly” Friday night at the Tivoli Theatre during 21st Century’s graduation — the last commencement ceremony in the history of the school.

Even some of the seniors who have attended the school six to 12 years say that, at this point, it’s just time to move on. The tiny school, with a graduating class of 24 students, provided a unique family atmosphere with lots of individual attention from teachers, the students say, but there is no going back.

“If we were in the 11th grade, we’d probably fight for the school a little harder,” said senior Scott Avila, 17.

But principal Wendy Jung said she urged her students to stop fighting and instead celebrate the seniors’ accomplishments during graduation. Six students were to give speeches or read poems Friday, and Ms. Jung said she encouraged them to remain positive, not bitter.

During graduation practice Thursday at the Tivoli, Ms. Jung showed her students how they would walk down the stage and shake school officials’ hands before receiving their diplomas.

“You’ll shake (school board Chairman) Kenny Smith’s hand — if he shows up, we’ll be polite,” she said.

Mr. Smith, who represents 21st Century’s district, voted with the majority of the school board to close the school.

One thing that has helped ease the fear of nongraduating students is the well-planned transitions to the schools that displaced 21st Century students will attend, Ms. Jung said. Administrators at Barger and Tyner academies have held ice cream socials and open houses and made incoming students feel welcomed, she said.

Most high schoolers at 21st Century will attend Tyner next year, and Saterria Heathington said the move to a brand-new school for her senior year will be tough.

“Numberwise, we’re used to a little-bitty school,” said the 16-year-old, who has only 30 classmates.

No matter the tone of Friday’s graduation, the ceremony ended on a positive note as all students stood to sing the school’s alma mater. Although they stumbled over some of the words during Thursday’s practice, everyone seemed to be clear on the last two lines.

“21st Century, we pride ourselves in thee,” they sang. “You have made a difference in our lives, oh 21st Century.”

about Kelli Gauthier...

Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...

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will_posey said...

Never heard of this school. Where was it located and what is its history?

May 16, 2009 at 5:16 a.m.
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