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Brentwood High celebrates future, largest graduating class

Brentwood High School celebrated the future and community at its commencement on Sunday, June 25, 2017. In the school's largest graduating class, about 1,200 students received diplomas in a ceremony that also recognized the September slayings of students Nisa Mickens, 15, and Kayla Cuevas, 16. (Credit: Ed Betz)

Brentwood High School’s academic year, which started with bloodshed and violence, ended with a celebration of community, optimism for the future and pride in the accomplishments of the students who graduated Sunday.

About 1,200 students — the largest graduating class in Brentwood history — received diplomas in a commencement that acknowledged the September slayings of students Nisa Mickens, 15, and Kayla Cuevas, 16, but also cheered the achievements of its graduates.

Thousands of family members, friends and well-wishers braved an intense sun and warm temperatures to pack into Frank A. Mauro Stadium for the ceremony, many carrying life-size headshots of their students and signs that expressed their pride in Brentwood’s graduates.

The commencement was a victory for Brentwood’s ethnic diversity and immigrant grit, said Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood), a 1974 graduate of the school.

He told the graduates that the working-class hamlet may not have the resources of more affluent Long Island communities, but it does have residents who know how to adapt.

“We know how to transform ourselves because we are Brentwood strong,” Ramos said.

Some new Brentwood graduates will attend college in the fall, including at Harvard, Syracuse, Georgetown, the City University of New York and Stony Brook. Others have enlisted in the military, while some plan to join the workforce.

“I’m so ecstatic,” said Tamara Brampton, 39, whose 18-year-old daughter Tarah Sookim plans to study nursing at the College of New Rochelle. “She loves children and she wants to make a difference in their lives.”

Reeda Iqbal, the valedictorian of the high school’s Sonderling Center who will study at Harvard, said she will become the first member of her family to attend college. She challenged her fellow students to figure out what they are good at doing, and to use that talent to help other people.

“What is your superpower?” she asked. “How will you use it to influence the world around you?”

The MS-13 gang, accused of terrorizing Brentwood for years, was allegedly behind the brutal deaths of Mickens and Cuevas as well as the killings of four young men whose bodies were found in a park in neighboring Central Islip in April. Sunday’s ceremony sent a message: You can knock us down, but you can’t keep us down.

“It was hard to get through all that at first,” graduating senior Matthew Guerrero, 19, said about the violence that rocked this hamlet last fall. “Some people cried in the hallways. But the thing about Brentwood is that you can always count on someone being there for you, students, teachers or administrators.”

Classmate Jessica Morales, 18, who said she plans to study criminal justice at Suffolk County Community College, agreed. “It was a tough time, an emotional roller coaster, but we are a family and we helped each other,” she said.

Richard Loeschner, the principal of Brentwood High’s Ross Center, acknowledged the gang violence by asking for a moment of silence during the graduation ceremony to honor Mickens, Cuevas and their families. He said the slayings left “a collective hole in our heart.”

“Give a prayer,” Loeschner added. “Pray for the family and friends who are still impacted, who will always be impacted by their loss.”

Ramos also acknowledged the violence, saying he has secured money to fund an anti-gang program for the hamlet.

Graduate Victor Colina, 19, said he plans to move to Florida, where he eventually hopes to start his own construction company. But first, it was time to celebrate.

“I’m going to have a barbecue with my family,” he said. “And spend the rest of the day relaxing.”

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