To Higher Achievement’s Class of 2023

The following speech was delivered by Brandon Villatoro-Sorto, an alumnus of Ward 4 and current Ward 4 Achievement Fellow, during the 2023 Higher Achievement DC Metro Green Apples graduation and awards ceremony.

As we close out this pivotal moment in the lives of these exceptional scholars, I want to reestablish the significance of what the Class of 2023 has achieved during their time in Higher Achievement.

As a collective, the Class of 2023 not only participated in, but successfully completed a high school placement process that didn’t begin this year, but the very second they entered this program. Whether it was in 5th, 6th, or 7th grade, the scholars that are here before you today persisted through a process as arduous as it is simplistic, and as demoralizing as it is motivating.

In this process, we ask our scholars to take the reins of their futures into their own hands; something that is seldom done with kids their age. It is not easy to know what you want, and it’s even harder to understand the process for obtaining it. Nevertheless, we exist to act as that bridge between our scholars’ goals and the means by which they reach them; the only thing we request of them is an honest effort.

In order to illustrate the significance, allow me to detail the process that our scholars went through. First, they were asked to pinpoint schools of interest; a process that required research and an open ear and open mind. Then, they were informed of the many steps and requirements it would take to successfully apply to those schools. These steps included the composition of essays, teacher recommendations, exhibiting strong academic prowess through their grades, interviews, testing, and more. After successfully completing each of these steps, they were tasked with waiting patiently for their results as feelings of anxiety, anticipation, and more filled their souls as their preferred outcomes hung in the balance. They were forced to face feelings of rejection, inadequacy, and helplessness; things that are commonplace in the high school placement landscape as they competed for spots at some of DC’s premier high schools. To add insult to injury, they were expected to maintain a positive and productive mindset while grappling with these emotions and the prospect of their futures. To require that of anyone is lunacy, but they hit the mark each and every time.

The silver lining to this reality is this: they weren’t alone when they did it; they had amazing adults and role models that anchored them and walked this tumultuous path with them; step by step. They had amazing parents who understood that a strong support system is vital to anyone’s success; life and the process of growing is difficult, and we all need to be surrounded by those who genuinely want to see us fulfill our potential; which is exactly what they received at Higher Achievement.

In understanding the significance of this moment now, I want to transition to addressing the Class of 2023 as they look ahead to their new environments.

First and foremost, I am extremely proud of all of you; you guys are nothing short of amazing. Your ability to stay resilient in the face of the many trials that each of you faced and/or continue to face is extremely commendable. As an alumnus myself, I know what it takes to participate in this program; it requires you to search incessantly for that extra gear, that extra reason and/or purpose as you combat exhaustion from the school day and life in general; you are all warriors of the highest caliber. As you look ahead to your transition to high school, I have a few things to tell you:

  1. You are all capable, worthy, and deserving of all of life’s greatest gifts. Don’t ever give anyone the satisfaction of devaluing you.
  2. I hope you all understand that you are NEVER alone; you have individuals in this world that care for you; this room is currently filled with many of them. A strong support system is vital for anyone’s success and leveraging those relationships will keep you on the road to your purpose. In saying this, I implore you all to seek out and develop healthy relationships with everyone in your new environments.
  3. Each and every one of you has made amazing strides in your development as scholars and human beings. However, the process is not finished; I want you all to continue to develop and challenge yourselves to be better than you were the day before. To do this, it means opening yourselves up to feedback and having the humility to understand that no one is complete; including the adults you’ve come to know here at Higher Achievement.
  4. While this moment seems like the end of your relationship with Higher Achievement, I promise you that it’s not. As I told my group of wonderful 8th graders at Signing Day, “Mr. Brandon will always be in your corner and rooting for you. I want to see and hear about the many things that come your way; regardless of whether it’s positive or negative. Call it intuition, but I am led to believe that these words resonate with the adults that you have connected with at your respective centers during your time in Higher Achievement.
  5. I hope you all learned one very important lesson from this entire process: putting in the time and effort matters. If there’s anything that you all have exhibited, it’s that there is a reason to try; there’s a reason to set goals and to work relentlessly at realizing them. As you move into your new environments, never underestimate your ability to determine your future as you maneuver through this complex and challenging world.

In closing, I wish you all the best as you transition into high school. You are all tremendous individuals and I have no doubt that your resilience will shine through as you traverse the peaks and valleys of your high school experience. If you ever lose sight of the reason for trying, I implore you to look in the mirror; you will be greeted by the sight of an individual whose goals and aspirations depend on it.