Corey Witherspoon cradled a senior who had just been stabbed in the heart at Renaissance Academy High School. The boy’s mentor tried to stop the bleeding with his hands. He screamed: “Fight! You can make it! You’d better keep breathing!”
Those words in the hallway may have been among the last that 17-year-old Ananias Jolley understood. He lost consciousness on the way to the hospital in November and died a month later.
In the weeks and months that followed, Witherspoon found himself saying those same phrases to other seniors. In a way, they became the unofficial mantra for Renaissance’s Class of 2016, a group that endured so much trauma last year, perhaps the toughest year ever for the school. Or nearly any school.
Students faced the possible closure of the school; they mourned the deaths of Ananias and two other young men who were killed; until a few weeks ago, some seniors were still struggling to complete their schoolwork. Many come from impoverished, violent neighborhoods.
“This was like four years in one,” said Antwon Cooper, who also works as a mentor at Renaissance.
Never did the school’s name seem so fitting as it did on graduation day Friday. The school celebrated its largest graduating class in recent history — 65 students — and posted an 82 percent four-year graduation rate, its highest since 2010. More than half of graduates were accepted to a college. Others plan to go to work, to trade schools or into the military.
Nikkia Rowe, the school’s principal, said simply: “It’s poetic justice.”
Among the graduates were Ananias’ brother, 20-year-old Santonio Jolley, a dropout who enrolled in Renaissance five days after his brother died; Jaylen Myers, 17, the valedictorian, who will study engineering at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore; Shawn Nelson, stabbed seven times protecting his aunt last year, who is applying to Baltimore City Community College; and Ameer Smith, 19, whose immediate plans are to survive.
Renaissance Academy is the only high school in the Upton-Druid Heights neighborhood of West Baltimore. The ratio of boys to girls is 2-1. Like a nation focused on the plight of young black men, Rowe said she worried most about the boys because she felt they were most vulnerable to violence and despair.
The school year started in the shadow of the riots last spring following the death of Freddie Gray. The center of much of the protesting and later looting was a mile away. In the fall, Renaissance was put on the school district’s closure list because of perpetually poor student performance, though the decision was later reversed.
Then, just a few days before Thanksgiving, Ananias was stabbed in the middle of science class, and he died just a few days before Christmas. By the end of February, two more students from the school were killed. Darius Bardney, 16, was shot in a hallway at the Pedestal Gardens apartment complex. Daniel Jackson, 17, was shot while standing on a West Baltimore porch.
“As soon as you thought you were breathing fresh air, it was something else,” Witherspoon said. But they looked to their principal. “We have a strong head in Ms. Rowe. We fed off her strength.”
Rowe opened the school’s packed and emotional graduation ceremony, held at Renaissance’s auditorium, calling it an “historic commencement.” She said that while the school struggled, she knew one thing: “It would never be in vain.”
During the past semester, teachers noticed students stepping up academically and socially — fewer fights and a sense of unity among students. In the 12th-grade English class, the teens wrestled with Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” pushing themselves, their teacher said, because many had come to believe that a passing score of 60 was no longer good enough.
At the graduation, the students’ accomplishments were showcased. Jaylen Myers, the valedictorian, posted a 3.592 grade point-average, edging out his academic rival, salutatorian Frank Reyes, who had a 3.375 GPA.
Khalil Bridges was selected as the principal’s scholar for his growth over his high school career. Stephon Moody, the senior class treasurer, was awarded a selective $10,000 Comcast Founders scholarship.
Kwame Rose, a local activist who delivered the commencement address, reminded the students of their triumph, saying, “Growing up in Baltimore … the statistics say you are not supposed to be here today.”
The ceremony was full of reminders of that, and of how their strength was constantly tested, from a life-size photo of a slain student, to an extra gown hanging over an empty chair for Ananias. In his valedictorian speech, Jaylen had a simple message.
“You are Renaissance strong,” he told his cheering classmates.
The mothers of Ananias, Daniel, and Darius were each awarded a diploma “post mortem honoris causa.” As the women stood, crying, holding the framed certificates, mentors of the three teens read what had been learned through their untimely deaths:
“… to stand in our tribulations,” Witherspoon said for Ananias.
“… we are powerful,” Rose said for Darius.
“… all lives matter,” Daijeon Powell, another mentor, said for Daniel.
Within minutes, Tiffany Jolley cried for one son, Ananias, and cheered for another. “It’s bittersweet,” she said of watching Santonio cross the stage, carrying his brother’s graduation gown on a hanger and his own diploma. “He did it all on his own, for his brother,” she said. “Words can’t express how proud I am of him.”
She said she felt love in the room, from her friends, family and people she didn’t know. Every time she heard his name — it was screamed at least a half-dozen times throughout the ceremony — she felt her son.
Darius’ mother, Donnetta Williams, had made a life-size cardboard cutout of her son, which a heartbroken friend of the slain teen carried. She arranged her son’s graduation gown on it and took pictures with it.
Williams used to repeatedly tell her son that “a strong man is an educated man.”
“I’m just glad they did something for him,” she said, “because I used to always tell him that all I wanted him to do was finish high school.”
Of the 40 graduating boys, 35 had been in the Seeds of Promise program, which paired them with mentors who became their school fathers, providing love and support. That meant giving the kids their cellphone numbers, helping them with school work, sometimes taking them to Canton to see another part of the city, and if needed, getting them food and clothes.
Weeks before Ananias was stabbed, allegedly by a classmate, his mentor bought him clothes for a senior ceremony.
Even though the students are moving on, the mentors — Cooper, Witherspoon, Powell and Marcus Taylor — plan to stay in touch with their kids. “This is a 24-7 operation,” said Witherspoon. “They’re part of us for life.”
The students also feel the bond.
Jaylen, the school’s valedictorian, could have switched to the prestigious Baltimore Polytechnic Institute after ninth grade. “I never gave up on this school because it didn’t give up on me. I knew it would mean a lot to stay here,” he said. “I inspired myself and others around me. I want all of us to succeed, my classmates, African-Americans, my community.”
Still, the graduates are nervous, said Witherspoon. Once they leave the school, they will face other hard realities. He said some have already become apparent.
In Jaylen’s case, even with financial aid, he would have had to come up with an impossible sum of $42,000 to attend Clemson University. Instead, he is on his way to a more affordable option, UMES.
“I was like, ‘Damn, real life hitting them,'” Witherspoon said. “The places they want to be, they can’t be.”
But after what they’ve been through, they feel hopeful.
After the ceremony, principal Rowe stood outside the front door of her high school, surrounded by a sea of graduates in burgundy robes.
“There will be thousands of kids who graduate this year,” Rowe said. “But none of them have crawled from where we crawled from.”