Friday, May 27, 2016

TOP STORY >> Charter graduates first class

By Deborah Horn
Leader staff writer

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less,” said Lynise Harrris, Lighthouse Academies chief of staff, as she introduced the keynote speaker, Lighthouse Aca-demies CEO Khori Whitaker, to Jacksonville Lighthouse Charter School’s first graduating class Thursday evening.

Harris was quoting C.S. Lewis at the graduation ceremony that was held at the Argenta Community Theater on Main Street in North Little Rock.

Harris described Whitaker as someone who throughout his career had put others first.

“I’m proud to be here to share this moment,” Whitaker said in his opening remarks.

He went on to tell a story about how he lost a race as a young child and a fellow classmate told him that he had done poorly because he was wearing the wrong kind of shoes. That evening, Whitaker’s mother said, “‘It’s not your shoes, it’s you,’” he recalled.

He then told the graduating class, “It’s not your shoes, your circumstance — you have the power to achieve your dreams.”

Rachel Johnson, 2016 class president, gave the Senior Farewell, saying, “I’m really going to miss you guys…I love you guys.”

Brehanna Abraham was the first senior of the first Lighthouse graduating class to walk across the stage to receive her diploma. She was followed by another 59 seniors.

“We’re the first graduates…It will be the last time to be together as students,” said Class of 2016 Salutatorian Jodie Miller. However, it was Valedictorian Dalton Bryan who seemed to sum up the spirit of the Lighthouse experience. Bryan described himself as a kid who avoided the spotlight and didn’t know what to expect when he first started in 2009.

He said as he faced an audience that overfilled the 200-seat theater and packed the entryway, “I found a strong sense of belonging…of family” that allowed him to step out of the shadows and into the limelight.

“I am honored to be the first valedictorian,” he said.

Deveta Croutner watched proudly from the audience as her son Carson Croutner walked across the stage to receive his diploma.

He joined the school in 2009 when it opened. Deveta Croutner said her son had excelled at academics while there and she felt they had plenty of support from the teachers and administration.

Twelve members of the 2016 graduating class started with the school when it first opened in 2009.

Tonight, she added, “Carson feels like he is making history.”

Many other students, like Shaylin Leon-Rivera, who plans to attend beauty school and get a business degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock before opening a salon in Jacksonville, said they felt the same.

Yahaira Lopez’s mother, Nevida Lagunas, said she was happy with the quality of her daughter’s education.

When his daughter, Jhalani Tolbert, walked across the stage, Shawn Tolbert yelled, “My baby.” He added, “I’m very proud of her.”

Jacksonville Alderman Kevin McCleary attended the graduation and said, “It’s a pretty amazing group.”

Every student in the 2016 class graduated and every student was accepted to a college, and together the students pulled in $1.5 million in scholarship money. Not bad, McCleary said.

About two-thirds of the class of 60 graduated with recognition for academic excellence, and included: 18 Beacon Scholars, 12 LHA Honor Graduates, five Magna Cum Laude, three Cum Laude, three Summa Cum Laude.

The Lighthouse schools in Jacksonville are part of the Lighthouse Academics that place an emphasis on math, science and the arts.

It has schools around the country and is a national, nonprofit, charter-school-management organization with the mission of opening and operating of schools in urban areas that have been historically underserved.

The Jacksonville student body is diverse—57 percent African American, 30 Caucasian, 9 percent Hispanic and 1 percent other—and about 60 percent of the Jacksonville Lighthouse schools are eligible for the federal free-or-reduced lunch program, said the lower grades principal Delano Whitfield.

Principal William Felton promised during the ceremony that graduating seniors would have access to a dedicated staff member during their first year of college to help with any obstacles they encountered. Finally, he said he “loved all his students but it was time to go.”

Jacksonville Lighthouse Academy was founded in November 2008 with the granting of a five-year charter by the state Board of Education. As an open-enrollment charter school, it is a public entity that is open to Arkansans regardless of residence.

Although required to meet state educational mandates, an open-enrollment charter school is governed by a local, independent board of trustees.

Mike Wilson of Jacksonville was and remains a big supporter of the school system and attended its first graduation.

“The staff has done a great job and the kids have excellent NWEA [Northwest Evaluation Association] test scores,” he said.

The first class “set the bar high” for the school system that includes about 1,000 students in three schools in Jacksonville proper and Flightline Upper Academy on the Little Rock Air Force Base at Jacksonville, Whitfield said.

He was referring to students like Unique Richardson who earned two scholarships and plans to attend the University of Central Arkansas at Conway or Carl Hall who has enough in scholarship money to cover his expenses at Philander Smith College at Little Rock.

Hall said about graduation, “It’s the best moment of my life.”

Principal William Felton said during the ceremony that he “loved all his students but it was time to go.”

Afterward, Felton held the theater doors open wide as the new graduates spilled through and out onto the sidewalk as a group for the last time. He said he was proud of the first class, then added, “A lot of these kids would have been overlooked, but here they were allowed to shine.”