Smithfield Herald

June 13, 2014

Neuse Charter graduates its first seniors

Neuse Charter School celebrated its first high school graduation earlier this month. The school started in 2006 for kindergarten through fifth grade and added grades as students moved up.

Neuse Charter School has awarded its first diplomas.

In a ceremony June 6, 26 seniors wearing blue gowns graduated from Johnston County’s lone charter school, founded in 2006 for students in grades K-5. Neuse Charter added middle and high school grades as students moved up.

“Welcome to history,” Jimmy Lloyd, chairman of the Neuse Charter board, told the graduates. “You are the first to realize the dreams of a lot of other people.”

Many speakers in the 90-minute ceremony repeated the theme of making history, and Lloyd told the graduates to keep making history as they go out into the world. “It’s something that you make every single day,” he said.

Joel Erby, high school principal, said students could credit their success to Neuse Charter’s former executive director, Patricia Harris, and her “willingness to dare to be different.”

Harris, a former principal of West Johnston High School, came out of retirement to lead Neuse Charter. This past March, the 66-year-old lost her battle with cancer.

At graduation, an empty chair held a photo of Harris, and as students walked across the stage to receive their diplomas, they placed a white flower tinged with blue, the school colors, in a vase next to the chair.

“We finished your dream to see this class graduate,” Erby said.

With fewer than 30 graduates, the ceremony was more intimate than most. The seniors described their class as a tight-knit family. In his speech, salutatorian Mark Fang called out classmates by name. And the valedictorian, Rockford Wilson, talked about the family atmosphere. “We will forever be known as the couple-dozen kids that started it all,” he said.

Speakers talked about the history of Neuse Charter and noted that the school faced opposition from some in the community, including the traditional public schools. Todd Johnson, who serves on the board of directors, said the school’s supporters faced intimidation for speaking out. Some critics, he added, claimed the school would be racially segregated. “Well, they were all dead wrong,” Johnson said.

Johnston Community College President David Johnson, the keynote speaker, called the students stars and drew a parallel with D-Day, which marked its anniversary that same day. He asked students to remember an acronym from the word star: to SEE the challenges ahead, to TAKE charge of their circumstances, to ASPIRE for excellence and to RESPOND to situations while understanding the cost of each decision.

After the ceremony, graduates Jonathon Foy of Smithfield and Sara Stephenson of Pine Level found themselves outside with family and friends for photos. “I still can’t believe it,” Stephenson said. “I don’t feel like I should be done. This year has really flown by.”

As cameras flashed, Tre’shon Charles joked with his mom, Myra. She told him that she would get as many photos as she wanted after going through labor for him. As he leaned on her laughing, he said, “Carry me then; carry me now.”

Before the ceremony, Ebony Mitchell-Sealey said her son’s graduation was both humbling and overwhelming. Earlier that day, she was thinking of his first day of kindergarten. “The last 17 years just flash by,” she said. “It just went too fast.”

Neuse Charter began construction of its high school building last year, and Erby said it should be finished in time for classes to start in September. The graduation ceremony was also a chance for the school to meet its new executive director, Dr. Julie Jailall, a reading, writing and literacy expert from Clayton.

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