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Southwest’s first graduation marks a victory for the community

Dual-language immersion school sends first 55 grads forward

Leer en Español, traducido por El Vocero Hispano

Photos by Dianne Carroll-Burdick

Grand Rapids — Seniors in Southwest Middle High School’s class of 2024 made history when they received their diplomas and turned their tassels in late May.

The 55-student group was the dual-immersion English/Spanish school’s first-ever graduating class from the city’s first high school of its kind. 

In the lead-up to commencement, seniors commemorated the occasion by walking the halls of their old stomping grounds at the adjacent Southwest Elementary Academia Bilingüe. They high-fived elementary students, got props from teachers and embraced one another in a senior parade that stretched from the familiar elementary halls to those of the high school, which opened in 2020.

Seniors Fernando Simmons, front, and Alermy Carlos high-five students in the halls of their former elementary school

A few days later, on the morning of their graduation, they joined their families for a celebratory brunch at the high school.

The middle/high school was built in order to meet community demand for a grade 7-12 extension of Grand Rapids Public Schools’ Southwest Community Campus English/Spanish program, which had previously ended at eighth grade, said Principal Julian Ramirez-Torres.

‘I think everyone’s very proud of each other and happy for each other.’

— Southwest Middle High graduate Gabriela Garcia

The Impact of Southwest

Amid the activities celebrating the school’s first graduating class, seniors Aaron Allen, Sandra Lopez and Gabriela Garcia reflected on how important the school has been to them.

Southwest seniors Aaron Allen, Sandra Lopez and Gabriela Garcia enjoyed the senior brunch

“It meant a lot to me, being able to feel included and not left out,” said Gabriela.

Sandra echoed that sentiment. She and Gabriela are two of the many Southwest students from Spanish-speaking households for whom English was a second language.

“It was a really special experience because, being around people that speak Spanish, we were around people that share the same similarities,” Sandra said.

They said attending the new high school allowed them to remain in classes with a community that started developing in elementary school. 

“I think it was very special,” said Gabriela. “Growing up with everyone, going from kindergarten to graduating right now, I feel like we all grew up as a family. And seeing each other grow was special.”

Growing Communities, Preserving Cultures

Sandra noted that while many of her classmates were fellow Spanish-speakers, some were not. The diversity of the experience added to its impact, and it was “nice to see people come together with this program,” she said.

Aaron was one of the students whose first language was English.

“I grew up with most of the people I go to school with and it’s always nice to go from middle school to high school with all the same people,” he said, adding, “My mom wanted me to learn Spanish, so she put me in the school.”

Aaron relished the chance to acquaint himself with other backgrounds and heritages. 

“Being able to learn about the culture and make friends who are Spanish speakers, and being able to meet their families, was special,” he said.

Seniors celebrate with Southwest Middle High Principal Julian Ramirez-Torres, far right

Sandra, who’s a first-generation college student with plans to attend Grand Valley State University in the fall, said she was feeling “a lot of happiness” leading up to graduation.

Similar feelings of good cheer were felt by the whole class.

“I think everyone’s very proud of each other and happy for each other,” Gabriela said.

‘We have the best program here in the city. … Our model for bilingual education is soon to be a model that others are going to follow.’

— Principal Julian Ramirez-Torres

Ramirez-Torres said the school is doing important work in terms of preserving and celebrating the cultures that make up the neighborhoods of Southwest Grand Rapids.

“A lot of our students, a large majority, come from Spanish-speaking parents,” the principal said. “It’s important that they continue to develop that language and keep that language so they can communicate with their grandparents, parents and other relatives.”

He said the student pipeline from elementary to high school ensures that the community stays close.

Seniors Gabriela Garcia, right, and Jazpe Cano embrace after walking the halls of their elementary school for Grad Walk

“Even though we are in a large city, we have that small community feel, because everybody’s so tight-knit,” he said.

Ramirez-Torres has been with the graduates since their eighth-grade year, and he said it’s been fulfilling to see them learn and grow.

“It gives me a lot of pride to know that they were immature teenagers and now we have them transitioning to go to colleges, universities (and) the workforce. They’re young adults now, and seeing that from a professional perspective, it speaks volumes to what our staff has been working with,” he said. 

Southwest’s graduation marks a victory, he added.

“It’s just a culminating event for all the hard work that the community, our district, our staff has been working towards,” he said.“We have the best program here in the city. I truly believe it. Our students are phenomenal and our staff is great. Our model for bilingual education is soon to be a model that others are going to follow.”

Read more from Grand Rapids: 
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Union High juniors receive Impact Award

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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