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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Extraordinary 2012 Graduates — and Their Teachers

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

Social media has been in a buzz with David McCullough Jr.'s Commencement Address at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts: "You're not special!" If you have not read it yet, here is a brief overview from Valerie Strauss's Washington Post blog (with a link to McCullough's speech).

Here's a new one in the annals of commencement speakers: A teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts gave his address to the Class of 2012 and blasted the students, telling them over and over, "You're not special."

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David McCullough Jr., an English teacher at the school, delivered his rather unusual speech Friday, telling graduating seniors that they had been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped.

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While I understand how Mr. McCullough's address rings true in communities in the suburbs and schools of privilege in urban areas of our country, at Envision Schools and thousands of high schools in our country serving low-income youth and youth of color, it rings false. At Envision Schools 96 percent of our graduates will be going to college next fall (the other 4 percent have decided to serve our country in the military) and not one of them was "pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped" or received a trophy just for showing up. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The Envision grads and hundreds of students like them have overcome daunting challenges to persist and not only graduate from high school but also graduate ready for college.

This past weekend, I had the privilege to participate in the commencement ceremonies at our schools. The commencement addresses I heard from students and teachers left me inspired and hopeful for our future rather than the cynicism I feel from Mr. McCollough's address.

Students spoke of the challenges they had individually and collectively overcome these past four (and sometimes five years) of high school -- violence, disengagement in learning, low skills, parents in jail and self-awareness. I heard graduates describe their classmates and teachers as a family and the school as a home. They exhorted each other to not be afraid, to take leadership and make change...remember, these are the students not the adults calling the graduates to action and social justice!

Principals and teachers gave testimony to each student's talents and gifts. At all four schools, the staff and students celebrated the unconditional love that marked their school learning communities. The teachers also reminded the graduates that the road to college graduation is full of more challenges and that they will need to draw on the persistence and determination that delivered them to this milestone. While some young people do not need to be indulged, it was a wonderful moment for our school community to stop and indulge young people who rarely get a pat on the back let a lone a trophy for participation.

The graduates of Envision School are just a few of the hundreds of thousands of low income students of color who overcame amazing obstacles and defy statistics by graduating from high school and enrolling in college in the fall -- gosh darn it, this is special!

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