Karime Wellington, a self-described former "short-tempered, drug-dealing, live-for-the-moment teen," stood before a crowd of more than 100 and delighted in sharing his new title -- high school graduate.
Wellington, 20, of Valley Stream, was one of 48 students who received diplomas Sunday from the Long Beach-based Harriet Eisman Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk youth that opened in 1972.
After 39 graduation ceremonies with about 1,600 graduates, school administrators say Sunday's ceremony at the Long Beach Public Library could be the school's last, since it lost $300,000 in annual county funding.
The school has relied on Nassau County's youth services fund, which county lawmakers stripped of $7.3 million effective July 5th. Funding for about 40 youth community agencies -- from mental health providers to after school programs -- has been caught up in a partisan battle over borrowing and redistricting.
While the county provided Eisman's administrators with a two-month extension in funding to finish the school year, 45 students awaiting the start of the next school year in mid-September have been left in limbo, said Juli-Anne Sabino, the school's director. "It's caused a great deal of anxiety for many of the students," Sabino said. "We really don't have an answer for them. The county took away the funding without developing a backup plan."
Sabino said some students have requested their transcripts, to transfer to other high schools. Eisman's curriculum centers on smaller classes to re-engage students who had dropped out of school. For months, students have lobbied lawmakers to restore the funds -- writing letters to County Executive Edward Mangano, speaking at county legislature meetings and protesting on the steps of the Nassau County Executive Building in Mineola. So far, Republican and Democratic leaders have not reached a compromise on reinstating the funding.
"I wouldn't be here graduating high school if it wasn't for this school," said Jahdell Lewis, 18, of Roosevelt, who said he enrolled at the school after feeling as if he did not "fit in" at Lynbrook High School. He said he plans to continue his studies and become a dental hygienist.
Long Beach City Council president Len Torres, offered the students parting words of advice: "Every time a challenge comes forward, it's another opportunity to build and grow."