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100 percent graduating class at Golder College Prep

Salutatorian MariValencicenter gets standing ovati from her peers after Mayor Rahm Emanuel saluted her Golder College Prep commencement ceremonies Field

Salutatorian Maria Valencia, center, gets a standing ovation from her peers after Mayor Rahm Emanuel saluted her at Golder College Prep commencement ceremonies at the Field Museum Sunday June 11, 2012. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 12, 2012 6:12AM

While growing up, 18-year-old Chicagoan Maria Valencia’s after school time wasn’t spent on the playground but rather helping her parents sell corn on the street to provide for her family.

On Sunday, she was among the 100 percent of the Golder College Prep charter high school senior class of 113, most of whom come from low-income families, to graduate. And she was among 99 percent to be accepted to four-year universities this fall.

More than 100 of the senior class earned a total of nearly $7 million in college scholarships, according to a spokeswoman at the school, which is part of the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago.

The accomplishments led Mayor Rahm Emanuel to turn out for the graduation ceremony.

Salutatorian Valencia, who gave a commencement address, fought through tears as she shared with pride lessons she learned about the importance of dedication and hard work from her family, including her dad, a native of Mexico. He passed his U.S. citizen test — even though he couldn’t read or write — by listening repeatedly to questions and answers on a tape recorder, she shared.

Valencia received nearly $480,000 in scholarship offers from seven schools and accepted a full scholarship from Northwestern University. She graduated with a cumulative grade point average of 4.35.

She said she wants to be a Spanish teacher.

Emanuel surprised Valencia and her senior class by delivering the keynote address. He fought back his own tears as he referred to Valencia’s story.

“Too many people have a negative stereotype of our children,” he told graduation ceremony attendees. “Don’t ever bet against kids in Chicago.”

At Golder and at Chicago Public Schools, “we see students overcoming obstacles, making the most of their opportunity,” he said.

Nineteen-year-old graduate Jesse Smith said he was proud to be graduating from Golder, where he said he succeeded in turning his academic life around.

“They showed me the right way in life ­— that I needed to start doing my work instead of goofing off in class,” he said.

He learned to focus and transformed from being “a class clown” with a GPA that at one point in his first years at the school was 2.3, to becoming a student with a GPA of 3.1 in his senior year, he said. He plans to attend Western Illinois University this fall.

At the school, students take advanced placement classes, must adhere to a strict discipline code, and community service is a focus.

Seventeen-year-old Izamar Barragan, said a community service project she participated in was traveling to Nicaragua, where she and others helped build flooring for a school and a kitchen for doctors that helped the community.

Graduate Ashley Spain, said at Golder, she was able to focus on academics, and not “worry about outside things affecting my learning environment like violence or what I’m wearing.”

She added discipline demerits she sometimes received also helped her.

“I always thought I could challenge the rules, but that didn’t work out,” she said. “It taught me you have to follow rules.”

Because she followed them and applied herself, she will be heading to Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington this fall with scholarship assistance.

A message Smith hopes the accomplishments of his graduating class sends to other students, is “stay focused. Do the best that you can because anything can be accomplished if you work hard for it.” he said.

Valencia echoed those sentiments, while offering this advice:

“Be passionate. Be dedicated and be motivated. Anything you want can be achieved with you being motivated.”

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