The Phoenix Reporter & Item (http://www.phoenixvillenews.com)

Renaissance Academy's first kindergarten class graduates high school 13 years later


By Frank Otto, fotto@21st-CenturyMedia.com

Monday, June 17, 2013

PHOENIXVILLE — For longer than anyone else, Renaissance Academy’s tight-knit Class of 2013 watched students graduate ahead of them.
“We’ve seen a lot of people graduate before us and we’ve been there a while,” said Samantha Cross, class salutatorian. “(Our school is) so small we know everyone anyway. A lot of us are really good friends.”
Wednesday, the Class of 2013, the first to go completely from kindergarten to 12th grade at Renaissance Academy, will finally get their turn in a milestone for the charter school.
Fourteen students remain from day one at the school and will walk at the graduation held in the Valley Forge Christian College Flower Chapel.
“It’s very exciting,” said Sarah Messina, another student. “Renaissance Academy gave me a lot of opportunities academically, athletically and socially. I’ve been going through (the school) these 13 years so I made a lot of friends and took a lot of opportunities.”
With a graduating class of 53 students, it’s not easy to get lost in the crowd. But the cozy size of the school extends beyond a relatively small graduating class. Both the students and the staff matured together over the last 13 years.
Jen Palmer, a kindergarten aide in the school’s first year, now teaches special education in the fifth and sixth grade levels.
“Mrs. Palmer, she was there day one and now she’s still here,” Messina said. “It’s cool to see her progress and have her watch me progress, too. We grew together.”
Tracey Behrens-O’Brien was a kindergarten teacher the first day in 2000 and actually moved up to teach high school literature several years afterward, catching up with some of her former kindergartners.
“I think it really captures part of the unique experience as part of the Renaissance Academy where we’re able to see them move through all of the grades,” Behrens-O’Brien said. “It makes the teaching more meaningful. When I retire, I want to write a book, ‘From “Sad Sam” to Shakespeare,’ because ‘Sad Sam’ was the first book they read.”
“Imagine teaching someone to write their first sentence. Now, imagine having them in your classroom to craft their college essays,” she continued. “It is such a professionally-profound experience to be present on both ends of a K-12 education. And when the college acceptances and scholarships start rolling in, oh my, you cannot even imagine.”
“I feel like they feel more connected to us a little bit,” Messina said.
Logan Cuthbert, the class’ valedictorian, said the graduation of the first group of students to fully move through the school is big for the staff.
“I think it’s funny because some of them will come up to me and freak out: ‘Look how big you’ve gotten!’” Cuthbert laughed. “It’s history for their school. They’re staying on but we’re moving forward.”
Cuthbert, who will go to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland this fall, said other Renaissance Academy students who’ve gone through from day one are “lucky” to have had such an experience.
Moving from such a tight-knit, familiar environment will be a challenge for the students.
Cross, who is moving on to Gettysburg College, said it’s “a little crazy” to think of not knowing anyone at her school, an experience she really hasn’t had since she was just learning what sound the letter “A” makes.
“I’ve known everybody,” she said. “I’ll make friends there but I imagine (the Renaissance Academy students) will all still talk to each other.”
“It’s going to be an adjustment, but a positive one,” Messina, headed to Ursinus College, said.
“For so many years we’ve said, ‘Wait till our first kindergartners are graduated,’” Behrens-O’Brien said. “The students who remained here, I think they really, really took advantage of all the opportunities here whether they needed extra support in their learning or taking charge of an after-school activity.”
“It’s exciting,” she said.
Follow Frank Otto on Twitter @fottojourno.