More than 220 Hempstead High School seniors graduated Sunday in a jubilant celebration that offered at least a momentary reprieve from the turmoil surrounding the district.
Executive Principal Reginald Stroughn said the 224 graduates, which include 11 who received diplomas in January, would put the district's graduation rate at close to 50 percent. That's an increase from the 35.5 percent in 2013.
"The kids rose to the occasion," Stroughn said. For "the first time in decades" he said, all the graduates had at least a 65 average in classes. Before Stroughn was appointed last July, the district's policy was to round up grades in the lower 60s to 65.
Hempstead students on stage Sunday embraced each other as Superintendent Susan Johnson officially declared them graduates. The district has faced tumultuous times, including a disputed school board election and a grade-changing scandal.
The school board voted last week to lay off nearly 59 people, which prompted protests from teachers union officials.
School board president Betty Cross won re-election May 20, though school board candidate Maribel Touré and her supporters accused Cross of stealing the election.
The Nassau district attorney's office is investigating the disputed school board race.
Cross told the students Sunday, "They said you couldn't do it. Look what you did!"
In her speech, valedictorian Karen Lopez, 18, called on all sides to "set aside politics."
She praised her fellow graduates. "The stereotypes of Hempstead students are exaggerated and incorrect," she said.
Lopez will attend Columbia University on a full scholarship.
She and other students said they could feel the tension of the school board battles. "I get so frustrated when people act like there is nothing wrong," she said after her speech.
Jennifer Zelaya, 18, described graduation as "the best feeling ever." But she said she was happy to leave behind the "Hempstead school drama" -- changing principals and administrators. "The students definitely know," she said.
Iris Martinez, 17 of Hempstead, said she's the first in her family to graduate. "I'm so happy to make them proud," she said.
The final number of graduates was in flux until just before the commencement.
Stroughn had lost his authority over student and graduation records about six months after taking over last July, but gained it back Monday.
The district determined 158 students were eligible a little more than three weeks ago. By Friday night, that was up to 209 students. Sunday shortly after noon, he said 222 would be eligible to graduate.
The district had been waiting for test results from the state, he said, and had found that it was missing grades.
Stroughn has said he has been forced out and will leave Monday.
But Sunday was a day of celebration for students and family. Loretta Jones of Hempstead said of the education her niece, Samantha Coq, received: "I have no concerns. I'm so proud."