The West Roxbury Academy community gathered Friday to celebrate the last students to graduate from the school's campus in West Roxbury.
Though its rising seniors will move together to swing space in Roslindale next fall, West Roxbury Academy (WRA) — as this year's graduates knew it — will close later this month.
District officials proposed closing both WRA and Urban Science Academy last fall, citing what they described as the rapid deterioration of the schools' shared building, as well as low test scores and declining enrollment. Despite a community outcry, the Boston School Committee approved the closures in December.
Friday's ceremony was evidence that while that building — a 40-year-old behemoth on the VFW Parkway — had indeed been in disrepair, the school community was not.
Outside the ceremony on the Madison Park campus in Roxbury, Kamary Adams-Stokes held his 1-year-old son, Amir. He didn't think that he was going to get here, wearing a cap and gown.
"It's a very emotional moment," Adams-Stokes said. "I ain't cry yet — but I know it's coming."
Adams-Stokes is 20. He wound up at WRA after he dropped out of another school, and only attended for a year and a half. Still, the community felt real to him — as did the loss.
"I gained a lot of close friendships — felt like I been there [for] my whole high school, you know?" he said.
Graduating and parenting was hard work. Still, Adams-Stokes gave thanks to the school and its staff.
"It's given me time to think about what I really want to do: whether I actually wanna go to college. Or do I want to work, and continue to make money to support me having a child?"
Inside, Janel Muhammad was wrangling balloons so they wouldn't drift up into the rafters. She also gave a lot of hugs.
For a school disciplinarian, Muhammad seems to be beloved. She joked that she might have suspended half the school in her time – but she said it was important to teach her students about consequences.
"They have to learn those things on their own," she said. "At 18 years old, you should know that you can't call the teacher a name in the classroom. At 18, you know you can't walk around and not go to class."
West Roxbury Academy served a complex student body. In the lobby, you hear a riot of languages: Cape Verdean and Haitian Creole, Spanish as well as English. Many, Muhammad said, were "at-risk youth." Almost two-thirds of the school's students came from low-income households; about a quarter had a learning disability.
District officials have argued of late that too many high-needs students are concentrated in too few of the city's high schools — schools like WRA. But Muhammad sees it differently: her school learned to serve its "non-traditional" students with "non-traditional" empathy (to go along with the tough love).
"They learn differently, and they walk across the stage. And we make sure they walk across the stage," Muhammad said. "'What do you need? You need a tutor? I'ma stay after school, I'ma tutor you.' 'You need a babysitter?' — because some of our kids have kids. 'I'll watch your child while you're taking this test.'"
As much of the WRA community — teachers and students — braces to be dispersed throughout BPS next fall, Muhammad said she wishes the district had seen the value in keeping the community together.
"When you take away that foundation, what do you have?"
During the ceremony, WRA alumni spoke and performed — from a young entrepreneur and a rapper to former Red Sox pitcher Manny Delcarmen. But the graduates were there, mainly, to celebrate each other. They whooped it up for the better part of an hour as they collected their diplomas.
Afterward, as the sun starts to set, graduate Macklyne Joseph said all that cheering was a sign of what went right at WRA. It was "one big family."
Joseph — who was born in Haiti — was one of the WRA students who wrote letters, made posters, and spoke out at school committee meetings last fall.
She was crushed when the committee voted to close the school anyway: "I feel like they should have heard us. Because this is more than just a school. We actually have memories, we have a bond at that school. And people, they just don't understand that. They see it as just a building. But it's not."
It was a painful lesson, Joseph said. But it was a lesson. "I learned that sometimes, even when you try your hardest, things don't always go the way you wanted to," Joseph said. "But it's still pretty good — to fight for something you believe in."
This segment aired on June 8, 2019.