“I WILL GRADUATE” Day popped off without a hitch as 11,000 eager students from 179 New York City schools gathered at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to celebrate their commitment to education on Oct. 24. 

I WILL GRADUATE (IWG) is a nonprofit co-founded and led by former music industry Roc-A-Fella Records executive and gospel singer Tonya Lewis Taylor. It was established in 2008. The 7-12th grade students who attended the celebration voluntarily participated in a 6-week curriculum, called ‘Get Focused, Stay Focused,’ that IWG donated to hundreds of schools. The curriculum Taylor uses addresses social and mental health issues, provides entrepreneurial workshops, and highlights gun violence awareness. IWG also has a robust music and recording studio program.

Taylor was born in Canarsie, raised in East Flatbush in Brooklyn. She said her parents were hard-working working class people. During her upbringing, hardship, gang violence, poverty, and drugs flooded her community and neighboring districts. “I think growing up I learned to make decisions about what I wanted my life to be,” said Taylor. “I made the decision that I wanted to rise above and I went on a journey to structure my life, and it was a group like mine that came to my high school that got me to start thinking.”

Her organization, along with a coalition of elected officials and hip hop heads, aims to combat low graduation rates in the city’s public school system and connect Black and Brown youth to critical resources. 

Recent National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) data indicates pandemic learning loss has been pretty severe nationwide. In New York City, 18% of the city’s 4th graders were proficient in math, compared with 24% in 2019. The data said the scores have not been this low for nearly 20 years, and as expected, existing disparities among Black and Hispanic students were exacerbated. 

“It’s no surprise that scores have dropped. They are really reflective of what has happened during the pandemic,” said Schools Chancellor David Banks at the event. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.” Banks said that he’s committed to closing the racial disparities in the city’s education system that existed prior to the pandemic, making sure children learn how to read by the 3rd grade, and that even beyond graduation students have a plethora of opportunities to pursue.

About 11% of Black and Hispanic students scored as proficient in 4th grade math compared with 39% of white students and 48% of Asian American students in the same grade, said NAEP. Reading scores in the city remained below national and state averages across the board.

“It’s about over-resourcing,” said Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso about the drop in scores, “we see a tick down in education, we should be putting out mental health professionals, advisors, and teachers. Investing the same way we do with everything else in our children. I do that by supporting I Will Graduate and their programming.” 

Attendees included Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, NLE Choppa, Sean “Arnstar” Kirkland, Fivio Foreign, and Life Camp Founder Erica Ford as well as countless others.

Williams praised the IWG program for generating genuine excitement and energy around education in such a dire time. On stage, he spoke to the students about his own struggles at Brooklyn Tech High School after his Tourette’s Syndrome diagnosis in 9th grade. He said without summer school, night study, and the dedication of his 5th grade teacher Jenni Net, he would absolutely not be an elected official today.

“There was a bit of struggle for most of my schooling,” said Williams. “I don’t think people thought that I’d be a citywide elected official.”

A Harlem native, Arnstar is best known for his role on the TV gameshow “Wild N’ Out” and as rapper Lil’ Mama’s brother. He said he got his start in activism after losing his father to gun violence. He’s one of the performers for the students benefit concert and has been participating in the program since 2018. “I will graduate, it’s an affirmation, it’s a plan of action,” said Arnstar, “And so being successful and having films and music that’s going viral, it’s only right that I let the kids know that they’re next.”

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://bit.ly/amnews1

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