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A Sankofa's culturally significant graduation ceremony

EULENE INNISS | 6/27/2013, 1:23 p.m.

Special to the AmNews

There was no "Pomp and Circumstance." The Sankofa International Academy graduates and their parents marched to the beat of the African Drums. Sankofa used the Fort Greene Stuyvesant Heights Neighborhood Senior Center, located at 966 Fulton St. in Brooklyn as the venue for their graduation/promotion ceremony on June 14 and thereby maintained the cultural and community essence of their educational program.

The eighth-grade graduates were surrounded by their peers, parents and the entire community family. Willoughby Senior Center Director Mr. Boyd; Fort Greene Stuvesant Heights Center Director Sharon Barnett and the seniors with whom they engage in weekly community service beamed with joy. Sam Pinn, chairman of the Fort Greene Senior Council and Jazz 966; Fort Greene Senior Council Assistant Director, Ms. Macy; civil rights icon the Rev. Herbert C. Oliver; minister Clemson Brown; and a host of inter-generational guests looked on with nods of approval as two graduates, Gene Johnson Jr. and Issa Chambers, exuded self-confidence and an aura of leadership while basking in the safety of the village. During their parting speeches to the audience, they compared and contrasted their public school educational experience with that of Sankofa. It was an awakening for the listeners.

Johnson came to Sankofa after many failing years in the New York City school system. He was a fifth-grade Emergent Reader, evaluated for a Special Education program. His parents, New York City EMT employee Gene Johnson Sr. and Cho'Latise Johnson, a staff member of the Weill Cornell Medical Center, disagreed with the recommendation. They wanted more for their son; they believed in his potential.

The Johnsons learned of Sankofa while watching the late Gil Noble's "Like it Is" program. Two days later, their son was brought to Ollie McClean, the director of the school. As Gene Jr. tells it, his learning and school experience changed drastically. He travels from the Bronx to Brooklyn daily to attend school and has perfect attendance. He is an avid reader and a public speaker who represents his school at many community and national functions. He is a star player on a team in the Junior Baseball League and will be starting high school at the Bronx Eagle Academy for Young Men in September. He has been the recipient of numerous awards for academic and extracurricular activities.

Chambers said he was moved from public school to public school because of his not-so-perfect behavior. He said that he thought school was boring and the subjects weren't challenging. When his mother, Zauditu Chambers, an employee at Columbia University, brought him to Sankofa, he said his life changed. Of course, he tried to be defiant, but when he was taught about his great culture and realized who he was and what was expected of him, his transformation was automatic.

He found the work at Sankofa challenging and the staff caring. He is a public speaker, represents his school at community and national functions and is involved with various community organizations. He will be attending the City Polytechnic High School of Engineering, Architecture and Technology in September. He is also the recipient of many awards for academic and extracurricular activities.

After 28 years of service to the community, McClean had considered retiring, but Sybil Clarke, wife of the late historian Dr. John Henrik Clarke, insisted that McClean keep the doors of Sankofa open, even if she has one student, because that student would be a potential leader. The school was downsized and is much smaller now, but parents keep bringing their children to Sankofa, seeking refuge from the failing New York City public schools. Many of the graduates eventually go on to historical Black and Ivy League colleges such as Vassar, supporters note. They succeed. The difference is in knowing who they are. It begins with a cultural foundation such as the one taught at Sankofa International Academy, a private, independent school.