The moment the initial chords of James Brown’s “I Feel Good” echoed across the auditorium, students in the first graduating class at E.L.L.I.S. broke out into dance.
More than 30 seniors stepped to the beat and swung their hips while practicing their commencement recessional in the John F. Kennedy Campus auditorium Monday. Whistles and cheers accompanied the graduates as they walked across the stage.
Many leaving the English Language Learners and International Support (E.L.L.I.S.)Preparatory Academy said they had plenty to celebrate. Immigrant students recalled understanding only a word or two of English four years ago during their first class in America. Soon, they would be leaving their Tuesday commencement ceremony on Ellis Island with diplomas in hand.
Principal Norma Vega founded E.L.L.I.S. in 2008 to serve recent immigrants whose needs she thought were not being met in Bronx schools. The Kennedy campus school is for 16- to 20-year-old international students.
Yarlyn Mercedes, 20, of Washington Heights, said it was “an honor” to graduate where millions of immigrants before her first entered the country.
“We are immigrants and the people who were there are immigrants. It’s just very historical,” she said. “There are people who said ‘you can’t do it’ because you don’t know English and you’re new to the country. Now we’re doing it.”
Ms. Mercedes said she was overwhelmed when she arrived in America at 17 and learned she had to repeat most of the high school curriculum she completed in the Dominican Republic. She described E.L.L.I.S. as difficult when she started there in Sept. 2009. By the summer of 2010, however, she had passed all of her Regents and decided to enroll in college math courses while racking up enough credits to graduate a year early.
“Sometimes you’re thinking you’re going to stop school. But I kept looking at my mother. I was born when she was 15. She had my sister when she was 16, and she finished high school. When she was 24, she started college,” said Ms. Mercedes, who plans to study sociology or international studies at SUNY Oneonda.
Jonathan Lessuck, a chemistry and physics teacher, told the class to rise as he rehearsed the official degree-conferring speech. Ms. Mercedes, who was wearing a T-shirt with “no human is illegal” printed on it, stared at Mr. Lessuck. Nearby, a smile stretched across Ramon Filpo’s face.
Mr. Filpo, who enrolled in E.L.L.I.S. after emigrating from the Dominican Republic, said he was eager to graduate after passing the Regents on his sixth try.
“The last time I said, ‘Okay, this time, if I don’t pass, forget it,’” he said. “When I told my parents I passed, they were crying.”
Mr. Filpo, 21, credits E.L.L.I.S. staff with keeping him motivated and helping him before and after school.
“We’re all excited to be in the first [graduating] class,” said Mr. Filpo, who will start at SUNY Cobleskill this July. “I just want to go straight to college. I don’t want to take a day off because then I’m going to lose motivation.”
Ms. Vega compared graduating her first full class to having “your first child.’
“It’s a big deal to see how far they’ve come and how much they’ve accomplished,” she said.
E.L.L.I.S. had four ahead-of-schedule students graduate last year. This year, a whole class will don caps and gowns and line up on the “stairs of separation.”
“That’s where they actually separated the immigrants and it would be determined who was going to be able to go forward and who wasn’t,” Ms. Vega said. “Where people used to be separated, they’re all going to come together. It’s really very Hallmark.”