At untraditional graduation, Parker Academy students reflect on personal growth
Delaney Poirier wipes away a tear while talking about her mother Tina during her graduation speech as Principal Sherry Burbank lends support at Parker Academy Thursday, June 12, 2014.
(GEOFF FORESTER/ Monitor staff)
After the graduation, Delaney Poirier hugs her mother Tina after thanking her during her speech at the Parker Academy Thursday, June 12, 2014.
(GEOFF FORESTER/Monitor staff)
It looked, in some ways, just like any other high school graduation.
Just before 1 p.m. yesterday, a senior juggled flowers as she sped down a staircase to get ready for the event. Another held tightly to a faculty member’s last-minute embrace. Teachers and parents and peers shuffled around the school parking lot, where the festivities would soon begin. From their folding
chairs, a handful of onlookers craned their necks and camera phones to capture the scene as “Pomp and Circumstance” struck up and Parker Academy’s Class of 2014 filed into place.
But here, the ceremony began as all school days do: with a moment of reflection. This time, the crowd was told to focus on a memory of “when you had an obstacle and you overcame it.”
Indeed, the 13 seniors – a large group, by this school’s standards – had overcome their share of academic, social and other obstacles to make it to this day. So there would be no valedictorian, no class-selected speaker; instead, each student would get a personalized award and a chance to speak.
“We’re not an ordinary school,” Delaney Poirier told the crowd during her turn. “But hey – we’re not ordinary kids, either.”
Students come to Parker Academy for a variety of reasons, Finance Director Jennifer Kretovic explained: Some struggle with learning disabilities; others deal with bullying, anxiety or depression, among other challenges. The common thread among students when they arrive, Kretovic said, is that they “were not having a great experience” at their previous schools.
Nestled at the corner of Fisk and Hopkinton roads in Concord, Parker Academy serves more than 50 students in middle and high school. Executive Director David Parker founded Parker Tutoring in 1986, which later expanded into the school as it is known today.
“We don’t try to change them or say something’s wrong with them,” Parker said, emphasizing the school’s hands-on and individualized approach. “We try to teach them to recognize their strengths.”
At graduation, some seniors confessed that they were at first reluctant about the transition to Parker. Eventually, though, Poirier and her peers said they found administrators and faculty who were firm but patient, coursework that encouraged creativity, friends who were eclectic and supportive – and a sense of place and purpose that had been hard to come by in other classrooms.
Poirier, for her part, had been at Parker for just a year. After failing her classes as a sophomore and junior, the move to this new environment was transformative: This year, she said, she got straight A’s. The support she received from teachers and family was instrumental as she adjusted to her new school.
“The one person who believed in me even when I didn’t was my mom,” Poirier said, in tears. “I swear she’s a superhero – my inspiration, my anchor.”
At the ceremony, each student also received a personalized honor: the Clara Barton Award went to Poirier for her kindness and interest in nursing, while others included the Edison Lightbulb Award for Alexander Denis, who wasn’t easily deterred by failure, and the Margaret Mead Award for Ahvni Meyers, who was described as “always willing to step up.”
Joseph Webster, a teacher and senior class adviser, presented a special Phoenix Award to two students who made great strides during their time at the school: Vanessa Bellerose and Thomas McCarthy. In her six years at Parker, Bellerose grew into a student who “gives of herself,” Webster said, being involved in service projects, planning social events and immersing herself in the school’s robust musical opportunities. McCarthy, meanwhile, transformed from a freshman struggling with dyslexia to a student who now loves to read.
From here, students’ plans are varied: Poirier wants to work in the neonatal intensive-care unit, Bellerose wants to go to beauty school and McCarthy wants to study criminal justice. Other students are attending two- and four-year colleges, taking a gap year or returning to Parker Academy for additional training before going to college or into the workforce, Webster said.
Poirer, Bellerose, McCarthy and their peers said they’d leave Parker with far more confidence than they had when they arrived.
In her speech, Bellerose pointed out one lesson she’s learned that will especially resonate: “Just be yourself.”
(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)