It’s been a senior year like no other for Chicago’s Class of 2020. They witnessed an 11-day teachers strike, a pandemic that closed schools, and protests in response to police brutality against Black people.
The 18 seniors you’ll meet below haven’t just persevered through uncertain times: They’ve managed to top their classes despite a stream of interruptions. Undaunted, they’re looking to the future, with plans to attend colleges, such as Cornell University, Northwestern University, Boston University, and Western Illinois University. They dream of becoming doctors, engineers, educators, politicians, lawyers, and more.
Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson calls them “beacons of hope.”
“While each one of our graduating seniors has a unique story, the Class of 2020 is bound by the extraordinary circumstances they encountered and overcame during their senior year,” said Jackson. “We’re extremely proud of what they have accomplished.”
Scroll down to hear from the students — in their words — about what inspires them and what advice they’d leave for fellow students.
Responses from students have been edited for length and clarity.
What moment in your education stands out to you?
Graduate of Taft High School, plans to attend Drake University in the fall
“In the International Baccalaureate program, we had to do a 4,000-word extended essay. I remember all the support I received to complete it. Three separate teachers would sit down with me and let me ask them question after question. My friends and I all helped each other with rewrites, proof readings and sending jokes just to keep our spirits up. Even my parents, who had no idea what this paper really was, sat down and read 17 pages just to give me peace of mind. I’ve never felt so uplifted. It taught me how to persevere and how it is okay to ask other people for help.”
Graduate of Carver Military Academy, plans to attend DePaul University in the fall.
“I still struggled in my dual credit math class, I tried to receive as much help on it and spent most of my time studying for that class. Now I know that even when I struggle and feel like giving up, it is just a bump in the road that I can overcome it.”
Graduate of Foreman College and Career Academy, will attend Columbia College Chicago this fall.
“When I was in middle school I told myself I had to be valedictorian in high school. I was tired of always feeling as if I were less than just based on a bunch of test scores. Although I felt average, I never realized how important a role teachers played until I almost had a panic attack because there was an upcoming math test. I’ve always struggled with math and I told my teacher about how much I struggled with the subject. I assured her that I was most likely going to fail because of my past experiences. When it came time to take the test, my teacher went up to my desk as she was walking by the students, monitoring them, and she handed me a note. It said something along the lines of, ‘Good luck, I know you can do this! Don’t stress out :)’. Those simple words and a teacher reaching out to encourage me almost made me cry.”
Who helped you become the valedictorian for your high school? How did they help you?
Chicago Math and Science Academy, will attend Northwestern University in the fall.
My parents are always there to make sure that I am working and studying as well as getting the proper rest I need for school. My teachers are always there to give me feedback on all my work, and are the ones who ultimately taught me most of everything I know — all their lessons and explanations paid off.
Al Raby High School, will attend Western Illinois University in the fall.
“Tiwanda Parker, who is a staff member at Al Raby High School, has helped me. She never gave up on me and she was always there when I needed advice. My mom helped me become valedictorian for my high school because she made sure I got up early for school every morning. She even motivated me when she was in the hospital for brain surgery.”
Morgan Park High School, will attend Howard University in the fall.
“Mrs. Sara Harton has been my math teacher all four years of high school, and she has never hesitated to push me to be my best. Mrs. Harton has always known my potential, and has led me to work towards it. I’ve learned many lessons and techniques from her that have helped me do even better in my classes than I’ve done in previous years. She’s helped me with not only math, but life in general.
Graduate of Corliss High School, will attend Trinity College in the fall.
“My grandmother has played a huge part in my success in becoming valedictorian. She has always made sure I had everything I needed and more. She also made sure I was involved in many programs to keep me busy.”
Graduate of Prosser Career Academy, will attend Dominican University in the fall.
“A person that has helped me become valedictorian is my English teacher Mr. Matthew Lemoyne. I had the opportunity to be in his English class for two years, Lemoyne showed how much he cared about our well-being. He helped me academically and emotionally; he constantly checked up on us and made sure we were on track. He also always made his classroom feel like a safe environment for anyone to express themselves freely. Mr. Lemoyne definitely helped me become valedictorian because his class had such a positive effect on my mental health. His class never failed to keep me motivated and made me feel like I was ready to tackle anything.”
What advice do you have for your fellow students?
Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center, undecided.
Oscar Anthony Rivas
Curie Metropolitan High School, plans to attend Cornell University in the fall.
Legal Prep Charter Academy, undecided.
Amundsen High School, plans to attend Boston University in the fall.
Austin College and Career Academy, Undecided.
Ogden International High School, plans to attend Northwestern University in the fall.
Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, plans to attend Davidson College in the fall.
Golder College Prep, plans to attend Vanderbilt University in the fall.
Baker College Prep, plans to attend University of Southern California in the fall.