I WILL GRADUATE ceremony to celebrate students on Monday, Oct. 24 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

By Ariama C. Long

“I WILL GRADUATE” Day popped off without a hitch as 11,000 eager students from 179 New York City schools gathered at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to celebrate their commitment to education on Oct. 24. 

I WILL GRADUATE (IWG) is a nonprofit co-founded and led by former music industry Roc-A-Fella Records executive and gospel singer Tonya Lewis Taylor. It was established in 2008. The 7-12th grade students who attended the celebration voluntarily participated in a 6-week curriculum, called ‘Get Focused, Stay Focused,’ that IWG donated to hundreds of schools. The curriculum Taylor uses addresses social and mental health issues, provides entrepreneurial workshops, and highlights gun violence awareness. IWG also has a robust music and recording studio program.

Taylor was born in Canarsie, raised in East Flatbush in Brooklyn. She said her parents were hard-working working class people. During her upbringing, hardship, gang violence, poverty, and drugs flooded her community and neighboring districts. “I think growing up I learned to make decisions about what I wanted my life to be,” said Taylor. “I made the decision that I wanted to rise above and I went on a journey to structure my life, and it was a group like mine that came to my high school that got me to start thinking.”

Her organization, along with a coalition of elected officials and hip hop heads, aims to combat low graduation rates in the city’s public school system and connect Black and Brown youth to critical resources. 

Recent National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) data indicates pandemic learning loss has been pretty severe nationwide. In New York City, 18% of the city’s 4th graders were proficient in math, compared with 24% in 2019. The data said the scores have not been this low for nearly 20 years, and as expected, existing disparities among Black and Hispanic students were exacerbated. 

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