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Guest blogger Nikki Baszynski reflects on the eighth-grade graduation ceremony at Columbus Collegiate Academy (CCA), a Fordham-authorized middle school serving students in grades six through eight (the vast majority of whom are economically disadvantaged). CCA recently won the Gold Star EPIC award from New Leaders for New Schools for its extraordinary student achievement gains, placing it among only four schools nationally to win the honor. In short, its eighth-grade graduates are among the best prepared incoming high schoolers in the city of Columbus, if not the whole state. Nikki was a founding teacher at the school, is a Teach For America alumna, and is now pursuing her juris doctorate at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.

As we waited for the elevator, I looked to my left and saw a sign above the drinking fountain declaring, ?Whites Only.? Two Columbus Collegiate Academy graduates ? one black, one Hispanic ? noted the sign, too, and continued to read the commentary below it. The remaining portion of the sign explained the historic division of the races, recognized the efforts made to close that gap, and then ultimately welcomed all who read the sign to drink freely from the water fountain. As we finished reading, the elevator doors opened and we rode to the third floor of the King Arts Complex.

The King Arts Complex of Columbus, Ohio, is devoted to increasing awareness of the ?vast and significant contributions of African Americans? to our country and the world. It was a fitting location for the first Columbus Collegiate Academy eighth-grade graduation, an event three years in the making and one of the many efforts across this nation to close the achievement gap. There's no question that graduates from Columbus Collegiate Academy, where 81 percent of the students are African American and 94 are economically disadvantaged ? but achieve scores that place them among the nation's best, will be among those making vast contributions to our community.

Founder and Executive Director Andrew Boy began the program by thanking everyone who made CCA's success possible and introducing guest speaker Ray Miller, a former member of the Ohio General Assembly. Miller offered words of encouragement and advice to the graduates, ending with Marianne Williamson's quote, ?As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.? Certainly, CCA's students and their success have lit the path for fellow schools to aspire to the same high expectations and believe that those expectations can be met with a rigorous curriculum, a dedicated staff, and a culture of excellence.

The graduation ceremony also featured four student speakers: the class poet, co-valedictorians, and salutatorian. Each student's speech conveyed a similar message about the CCA experience: the path was hard, the teamwork necessary, and the results great. They recalled the nervousness with which they began, the excitement with which they are leaving, and the gratitude they have for all those who helped them along the way. One of CCA's valedictorians recognized the historic nature of the moment and its binding power on all the graduates: ?We're not just classmates or associates, we are a family...and we will always be the founding class of Columbus Collegiate Academy.?

Ms. Kathryn Anstaett, CCA's social studies teacher, captured the widespread feelings of possibility and enthusiasm, and exemplified the school's culture of high expectations and dedication, when she said, ?I'm so happy and excited that people like you are going to be leaders of the future because you have passion, compassion, empathy, tolerance, and problem-solving skills that I know are going to make our world, our country, greater in the future than it is today.?

The program ended with advice and kind words from Minister Rhesa Green and each student walking to the front of the room to receive a diploma. The audience clapped, cheered, and celebrated the end of the students' three-year journey at CCA. But, the ?Class of 2019? banner that hung above the students ensured no one forgot that the end of their time at CCA was really just one more step toward their ultimate goal - college graduation. And thanks to CCA, each of them has the skills, knowledge, and passion to achieve that goal.

Though the era of ?Whites Only? signs has passed, racial segregation and its impacts on student achievement? especially in our schools ? have not. I am sure CCA's graduates will continue to encounter systemic roadblocks throughout their lives, but, I am also certain that when faced with a roadblock, they will do what they've been trained to do at CCA through the culture of high expectations and an unrelenting pursuit of success: acknowledge its existence and then proudly rise above it.

-Nikki Baszynski

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