Universal Institute Charter grads go out in style

Eighth-grade student and Point Breeze resident Joseph Gonzalez receives his certificate of completion from the staff at Universal Institute Charter school during a move-up parade organized by teachers and staff. Contributed Photo

The eighth-grade students at Universal Institute Charter School, 801 S. 15th St., knew they would never get a chance to step foot back in the classroom due to the pandemic.

But the teachers and staff made sure they got the proper sendoff.

A caravan of cars paraded through the streets of Philadelphia last week to visit 55 soon-to-be high schoolers who rose through the ranks at Universal’s programs.

COVID-19 had eliminated any chance of a traditional move-up day. So the staff made a significant move bringing the celebration to each student’s home last week.

“The feedback from the parents and the scholars was overwhelming,” said Universal Institute principal Jeffrey Williams. “There were parents crying, teachers crying. I have to admit I was impressed because so many teachers and staff came out to support these students with the parades.”

Universal draws students from different areas of the city, so a bit of planning went into the procedure. Throughout the week, staff congregated in different neighborhoods before charging forward. On June 9, the caravan visited eighth-grade student Mia Desheraud’s home in Grays Ferry. She was presented with a certificate of promotion as well as any awards and honors she accumulated. Desheraud received the Youth Court and the 2020 Principal’s Award.

She appreciated the presentation the most.

“It was pretty cool,” she said. “We didn’t know it was going to be so big. They had music and banners and flags. We got sweatshirts, too, but it was great to see all the teachers and staff again.”

Eighth-grade English and Language Arts teacher Jean Yoo helped organize the parade, which was a significant undertaking.

“The staff came together to brainstorm ideas for how to celebrate with the students during the stay-at-home phase,” Yoo said. “Principal Williams came up with the idea, so we needed to organize the students’ addresses according to proximity and figure out the most optimized routes.”

Eighth-grade student and Point Breeze resident Mahtacko Sylla receives her certificate of completion from the staff at Universal Institute Charter school during a move-up parade organized by teachers and staff. Contributed Photo

Faculty thought it was the least they could do for the students, who had to miss their eighth-grade trip as well as their final days with their classmates. Desheraud will head on her own path to Central High School next year.

“I’ve been in the school for nine years, so I was kind of disappointed because I thought I was going to have a normal graduation,” she said. “But this was pretty cool to see everyone again.”

The parade was actually postponed for a week from the original plan, as the staff wanted to make sure it was safe and the city was still under heavy protests. The extra wait didn’t seem to matter when the cars rolled down the street.

“I could feel that many of them were grateful,” Yoo said. “Just to see so many people showing up for them, I think it made a big impression.”

Williams believed the eighth-graders needed the added enthusiasm and encouragement for successfully completing middle school. He wanted to send the students into their high school days with some momentum and love from the school.

“I felt really upset because over 60 percent of our scholars have been at UIC since kindergarten,” Williams said. “We can’t just wave goodbye to them and say, ‘Have a happy career in high school.’ We have to find a way to show that we are a community.”