Eighty-nine students dressed in navy blue and white robes marched across the Roxborough High School football field on Wednesday morning for the Class of 2013's graduation ceremony. 

For many students and faculty members, it was a bittersweet send-off. 

Principal Stephen Brandt, who will be leaving Roxborough to become Bensalem High's new principal next year, addressed his final graduating class with pride.

"Remember what we have accomplished over the past four years when others have failed or thought it was impossible," he said. "We proved them wrong and returned our beloved school to its high perch on top of the hill."

A glimpse of the last four years 

Many reflected on how much the school has changed over the last four years. Salutatorian Guia Longasa was not shy about discussing the dismal state of the school she first walked into, one that was ranked by the School District of Philadelphia as one of the most dangerous in the city, where negativity "flooded" the halls and classrooms.

"I was ashamed of belonging to the Roxborough High School family," she said, "and early in my freshman years I wanted to drop out or transfer to a different high school. But everything started to change halfway through my freshman year when we began to see a shiny head appear in the halls – and it belonged to our knight in shining armor: Stephen Brandt, our new principal."

By the end of 2012 the school was no longer on the district's "persistently dangerous" list. Brandt said this was because the faculty established a vision, set a culture and held everyone accountable for meeting higher expectations. The school also expanded extracurricular offerings to include music, cinematography and helpful events like college fairs.

Longasa's face beamed a wide grin as she stated her current feelings toward the school.

"Instead of fearing and feeling ashamed of Roxborough High School, I am proud to be a Roxborough student and graduate," she said.

Valedictorian Chau Leiu, who joined RHS as a sophomore after moving to Philadelphia from Vietnam, challenged his peers to step outside their comfort zones during his speech. He said he didn't fit in when he first arrived and was teased for his accent.

"Although our backgrounds and experiences are different, we all desire to be comfortable, joyful and successful," said Leiu. He later spoke of the value of diversity and the importance of stepping "outside your comfort zone and get to know other people outside your norm. The world looks so much different outside Philadelphia, outside Pennsylvania and even outside the United States."

The 'highlight' of a career 

Brandt, himself a 1994 RHS graduate whose parents and in-laws attended the school, described leaving as bittersweet but added that he looks forward to new adventures at Bensalem High School in Bucks County.

Assistant Principal Dana Jenkins will become the school's principal for the 2013-14 school year. Brandt said he is "very confident" the school will continue to improve in the future and added that Jenkins was the "only choice" to become the next principal.

"I think we've put a lot of things in place," he said. "As long as state policy makers come up with funding to adequately fund public schools in Philadelphia there is no reason things couldn't continue the way they are." He added that Jenkins is a caring and nurturing administrator who "puts children first and has high expectations that will ensure everything continues at the level of excellence that it has been."

The graduates, who were awarded more than $1.5 million in college scholarships, cheered as they tossed their caps into the air at the end of the ceremony. They hugged family members and posed for pictures before walking back up the steep hill from the football field to the school.

Brandt smiled as he shook hands with parents and watched the Roxborough High School Class of 2013 slowly disperse.

"This has been the highlight of my career," he said.


Photos by Brad Larrison for NewsWorks