The graduation rate is up at East River Academy, and the school gave out more diplomas than ever in a Tuesday ceremony that tried very hard to be as normal as possible, considering the school is on Rikers Island. NY1's Education reporter Lindsey Christ filed the following report.
They march in to the tune of "Pomp And Circumstance," mortarboards on their heads and flowing gowns over green jumpsuits. They were the 2013 graduating class of East River Academy, the school on Rikers Island, the city's main jail complex.
Part of the school's largest graduation ever, the graduates finished their degrees under unusual circumstances. But they were reminded again and again that, as one speaker said, "Your diploma is as good --every bit as good -- as everybody else's."
Of the 74 students, 10 earned their high school Regents diplomas, 24 earned their GEDs and 40 others were waiting for GED test results. The GED pass rate on Rikers Island has risen to 84 percent, so the odds are in their favor.
The record-breaking numbers came three years after the Department Of Education and Department of Correction overhauled and renamed the school.
"Before the school was restructured there were between 50 and 70 Regents exams given. This year we gave 248," said Nick Marinacci, the principal of East River Academy.
Over the years, the graduation has evolved into a ceremony that almost feels just like any other high school graduation.
Accommodations were made subtly, with rows of teachers separating different inmate populations. For the second year, girls were included, brought over from a separate jail.
Emotional family members couldn't take pictures but clapped and cheered.
"I never felt so good in my life. Never felt so good before," said Diamonte Alexander, a graduate. "They're just so proud of me, my mother couldn't stop crying."
After the ceremony there was a party, with graduates required to sit on one side of the table and families on the other.
A student speaker, Veronica Medina, said, "My grandmother has supported me through everything in my life. She is sitting here among us after coming from Florida just to be here for my special moment. Getting my diploma is not just for me, it's for her."
It was one of many remarks that could play in a graduation speech anywhere but took on special meaning at the Rikers Island ceremony.