The school district may be struggling on a number of fronts, but Wyandanch Memorial High School's graduation yesterday featured both inspiration and hope.
Geoffrey Canada, who graduated from the school 41 years ago and went on to become a leading education reformer, provided the inspiration.
He told the 99 graduating seniors that the future may seem uncertain -- just as it was for him, when he donned a cap and gown. But the quality education he received at the school, he said, was just the boost he needed to make it to college.
Then he ticked off the names of his teachers at the school, circa 1970. "You don't forget the people who changed your life," he said.
Canada, 59, went on to head a groundbreaking education program in Harlem that's improved the lives of many children. It was featured in the 2010 documentary "Waiting for Superman" as a bright light amid the failures of the public education system.
The hope came from the graduates, who were part of another educational experiment. Gear Up, a partnership between the district and Dowling College, funded with $250,000 a year in federal grants, began working with many of Saturday's graduates when they were in seventh grade.
The students were given the opportunity to take college classes, provided free SAT prep and awarded scholarships. The message: College isn't only possible, it's expected.
Saturday, 14 Wyandanch students earned advanced Regents degrees, an indicator of how prepared they are for college. That's twice as many as last year and more than the school record of nine set two years ago, according to school officials.
"We've been with these graduating students the last six years, and we've tried to create a culture of going to college," said Rhoda Miller, director of Student Support Services at Dowling College and head of the high school's Gear Up effort.
Dawn Littles, the school's 18-year-old valedictorian, said the program is invaluable.
"Not everybody gets that support at home," she said.
She's headed to St. Joseph's College in Patchogue to study psychiatry, already having earned 10 credits in chemistry and paleontology. Of her future, she said, "I think it's going to be pretty bright."
Despite the improvement, the high school has a ways to go. Across Long Island, 50.1 percent of 2010 graduates earned the advanced degree, compared with about 14 percent at Wyandanch.
Other problems persist: The overall graduation rate at Wyandanch last year was 71 percent, though officials believe it will be slightly higher this year. Budget cuts have taken a toll and there has been turmoil in administration in recent years.
Canada told the students that Wyandanch High still influences him today. Speaking on a stage on the same football field where he once played quarterback, Canada launched into a school cheer, swiveling his hips and clapping.
"We are the Warriors! Mighty, mighty Warriors!"
Canada said that chant helped him during his meeting with President Obama.
"The reason I wasn't terrified was because that song was in the back of my head," he told the graduates. "I wasn't terrified because I knew I was a Warrior."