First class graduation


By Anindita Dasgupta

A happy grad marches down the aisle, above, principal Robert Rhodes, center, and John Whitehead, former chairperson of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, shakes hands with Stephanie Babayo as Alia Dahhan stands next to her, below.

Most speakers couldn’t finish their speeches without interruptions of laughter, tears or applause at the Millennium High School graduation Thursday.

Millennium’s first class graduated June 22 at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, where the auditorium full of graduates’ friends and family became a part of the commencement exercises as they punctuated speeches with their own words and cheers of encouragement.

Principal Robert Rhodes thanked students, teachers and parents for their faith in the school from the very beginning. When he first recruited students and teachers in 2002, Rhodes was able to tell them few details about the school. He planned for Millennium to be a college preparatory school, complete with two to three hours of homework a night, 20 hours of annual community service and exhibition projects requiring extensive research and a formal defense. The school would also be the first high school to give preference to Lower Manhattan residents and received 9/11-related federal funds for construction.

Millennium students began classes in a temporary location at the Art and Design High School in Midtown in 2002. They entered their own space in the Financial District at 75 Broad Street the following year, with help in fundraising from Friends of Community Board 1, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and New Visions for Public Schools.

Whitehead said he didn’t like hearing that Downtowners were taking subways to high school and he wanted them to have a neighborhood high school.

With a $500,000 grant from New Visions of Public Schools, donations from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and the Open Society Institute, a $3 million grant from the L.M.D.C., and $16 million raised by Friends of C.B. 1, Millennium opened in their new building on Broad Street in 2003.

Students were eager to move to their new location and enjoy a space of their own. During his address to his classmates, senior, Christopher Curmi, 18, recalled entering the Midtown location. “I remember walking through a barrage of hostile stares,” he said.

Other students echoed Curmi’s initial feelings of concern. “The first couple of days, I felt awkward meeting everyone. Everyone was a stranger then. Danny Ngai, 17, said in an interview. “But after a couple of days, everyone started talking and advisories started mixing.”

The mixing Ngai described was the beginning of what is now a very close-knit family of friends. Many students said that their bonds formed over time from the experiences of all 86 students.

As nervous student speakers paused to find their spots in their speeches, or wipe their eyes on their gowns, their classmates and families cheered for them, urging them to go on. Curmi’s brother yelled, “You can do it!” to the tense Curmi when he hesitated during his speech. His classmates immediately started clapping and cheering, while parents dabbed their eyes.

In a phone interview, parents association president, Rhonda Erb, described why she felt the class was so close, “They were in very small quarters, and every year they had something new.” Erb referred to the school’s ever-changing environments. Even after they moved into the Broad St. location, this class dealt with multiple renovations as the school expanded to occupy the 11th, 12th, and 13th floors to accommodate each new class that was added each year.

Since they were the only class in the building when the school was first created, Rhodes spent the most time with them. As a class was added each year, his time was spread over four classes instead of just one, but he said having a full class was also exciting. “It was a little adjustment each year but there is something to be said too about having the full hum of the school,” he said. He compared the atmosphere in the school to a concert or a sports event with full crowds. “It’s a really great and special feeling,” he said.

Part of these experiences included adjusting to the academic program. “Whenever I think about sophomore year, the first thing that pops into my head is the look on all of our faces when we first got the exhibition rubrics,” Curmi said, referring to the research projects. “The easiest way to describe this is shock, disbelief, fear.”

Despite the difficult coursework, many of the seniors agreed that the work was worth it, as they feel prepared for college. “I feel ready for anything else now,” Jennifer Cabassa, 18, said. “I’ve mastered a lot of things here.”

To great applause, Robert Hughes, president of New Visions for Public Schools, thanked the students for their efforts to revitalize the city. “Through an unforgettable and unimaginable act of terrorism, those towers were destroyed. But nothing has touched the deeper bedrock of this place…On this bedrock you’ve constructed Millennium High School. On this bedrock you will reconstruct the towers and for that we are grateful to each and every one of you.”

Chemistry teacher, Jessica Marchetti, recalled her phone interview with Rhodes four years ago. She confessed that she was sitting in her closet, hoping Rhodes would not hear her roommates running around her home.

“As soon as I got off the phone I knew I wanted to work at Millennium,” she said. “To this day I am not sure why I felt so strongly about working in a place I had never seen, with a faculty I did not know, in a location that was undecided, and with a student body that did not exist yet. Yet somehow I knew there was nowhere else I would rather be.”

Whitehead, who was also Deputy Secretary of State in the Regan administration and chairperson of Goldman Sachs (headquartered near the school), delivered his comments to the emotionally recharged audience. He praised the class’ success in graduation and college acceptances, as 98% graduated, with 99% of the students entering college in the fall. Whitehead also drew attention to the fact that many of these students were first time high school graduates or college entrants in their families.

Based on their excellence so far, Whitehead pushed students to plan ahead and be ambitious. “You have taken the first important step in your life in becoming an important person. If you keep your ambition and keep your focus and don’t drop out somewhere along the line there is great achievement that flies ahead of you for any of you who want to do that,” he said. “It’s the leaders who accomplish things. If you want to make a contribution, if you want to make your life mean something when you come to the end of it, be a leader.”

Rhodes presented a citizenship diploma to Madelyn Wils, Friends chairperson and former chairperson of Community Board 1 for her efforts in starting the school..

“Please, please always remember that this school was created from a tragedy. It was a miracle that happened out of a tragedy,” Wils said. “During your life you will, unfortunately if you live long enough, be presented with some tragedy. But remember that you came from this knowing that these kind of miracles can happen and remember to pull yourselves up by your bootstraps and know that you can do anything.”

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