By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
A sea of families, administrators and graduating seniors filled George Mason University’s EagleBank arena on Saturday to send off Alexandria City High School’s Class of 2022, the first class to graduate since the school’s name changed in July 2021.
The ceremony, which was called “Ushering in a New Era,” included a performance of the national anthem by students Erin Burns and Caroline Davenport, a speech from the city town crier, a gift of funding for the classes of 2023-2025 presented by Margaret Irvine, the Class of 2022 treasurer, and remarks from several students and school officials.
Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., kicked off the ceremony by congratulating the seniors on their accomplishment and offering words of encouragement and comfort as they prepared for the future.
“All of you are working hard to achieve the ACPS vision of an equitable education that will take many of you to college, and to serve our country in the military, and to a new and exciting workforce that’s been shaped daily by the unprecedented pandemic,” Hutchings said. “At the same time, you have played an important role in the division’s mission of equity, helping to remove barriers, to provide an equitable education for all of our students regardless of their life’s circumstances. Titans of 2022, we celebrate your achievement today.”
Hutchings also called attention to the fact that this class is the first to graduate with the ACHS name. The school was previously named T.C. Williams High School after Thomas Chambliss Williams, a 30-year former ACPS superintendent who fought to keep schools separate and argued that Black and white students learned differently.
The namesake had received pushback for years, but pressure came to a head in 2020 after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. ACPS students spearheaded a movement to change the name of both T.C. Williams and Matthew Maury Elementary School, which was eventually approved in April 2021.
As a result, T.C. Williams became Alexandria City High School and Matthew Maury became Naomi L. Brooks Elementary School.
“We’re so proud to stand here to watch you all receive the first ever diplomas from Alexandria City High School and to graduate here today as ACHS Titans,” Hutchings said. “This name is all made possible by your efforts and engagement in the award-winning The Identity Project. The Identity Project focused on coalescing the voices of the community, including yours, our students, with the aim of replacing names of schools reminiscent of a racist past, and renaming them to reflect a new era of inclusion.”
Also in attendance were several School Board members such as Chair Meagan Alderton, Vice Chair Jacinta Greene, and members Abdel Elnoubi, W. Christopher Harris and Michelle Rief. Mayor Justin Wilson, Vice Mayor Amy Jackson and Councilors Sarah Bagley, John Chapman, Alyia Gaskins and Kirk McPike were also present.
ACHS Executive Principal Peter Balas awarded a posthumous diploma to senior Luis Mejia Hernandez, who recently died after being stabbed by a 16-year-old student during a large fight at Bradlee Shopping Center that involved 30 to 50 people. Hernandez’ uncle, Guillermo Romero, accepted the diploma on his behalf.
“The loss of Luis ten days ago is heartbreaking for his family, his friends, classmates, teachers and staff, and all of us who are part of this close-knit Titan community. Graduation is a milestone that all families look forward to, and we are shocked and saddened by this tragic loss,” Balas said. “To the Hernandez family, please know that you are forever part of the Titan family. We are here for you now, and we always will be. We hold you in our hearts during this challenging time and we thank you for entrusting your son to us for his education.”
During the ceremony, Class of 2022 graduate Ana Reyes Araujo spoke about her experience immigrating to the United States from Ecuador four years ago. She praised her classmates for their hard work to get to this point.
“I don’t care about your appearance, nationality, language, culture or religion. You matter now. And remember you always will,” Araujo said. “I’m proud of all of you here today. I want you to be bold. I want you to be successful in life. You all deserve it. We are a new generation. We are taking a special step for our lives.”
With a class of 809 graduating seniors, postsecondary plans vary. As of June 3, 562 students reported applying to a college or university; 22 plan to serve in the U.S. military; 30 plan to take gap years through various organizations; and 15 plan to attend trade schools to study technical, HVAC, dental assistant, electrical apprenticeship and automotive service trades.
The Class of 2022’s demographic is approximately 38% Hispanic, 28% white, 25% Black, 6% Asian, 3% multi and less than 1% American Indian/Alaska Native.
Following the speeches, students walked the stage to accept their diplomas, take photos and shake hands with officials. A sense of Titan pride permeated the air, which was further validated in Hutchings’ speech.
“As you all receive your diplomas today, you embark on a new pathway to the future – one that forges ahead with the strength and the spirit of a Titan because as some things change, being a Titan always remains,” Hutchings said. “Remember, no matter where you go and what you do, you are a Titan, yesterday, today, forever a Titan.”