Theodore Roosevelt High School 2016 valedictorian Adrian Fielder, who is autistic, is first in line for his graduation ceremony that was held on the school’s campus on June 11. (Courtesy Photo-DCPS)

The District of Columbia school system honored its top student-scholars, many that overcame physical and economic barriers to achieve at a high academic level. Valedictorians, salutatorians, and other top students from the District’s high schools were treated to a catered lunch and received words of encouragement on June 10 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Among the academic high-achievers were two students from Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School who are autistic but managed to finish as number one and two in their 2016 graduating class.

Autism is a life-affecting disorder characterized by a profound withdrawal from human contact, repetitive behavior, and fear of change in the environment. The disease affects the brain’s ability to receive and process information. Many people who are autistic find it difficult to talk and look at other people and seem to be inwardly focused. A report from the CDC and the National Center for Health Statistics shows that 2.24 percent or 1 in 45 children are autistic.

Adrian Fiedler is Roosevelt’s valedictorian and Reco Robinson is the salutatorian. Fielder told the AFRO that going to school wasn’t an easy experience but it was worth it. “At Roosevelt, I did my work as best as I could and I got a lot of encouragement from the teachers and the principal,” he said.

Fielder wanted to stay close to home in the District and has opted to attend Catholic University. Robinson won’t be attending college but is looking at a trade school.

Robinson echoes Fielder in the support he got from Roosevelt. “The teachers at Roosevelt will work with you if there is something that you don’t understand,” Robinson said to the AFRO. “I worked hard to make academic progress.”

Robinson said that he is interested in studying photography, “especially sports photography.”

Sah Brown, interim principal at Roosevelt, is proud of the achievements of Fielder and Robinson. Brown said, “We are a school community and we embrace everyone. They have been excelling academically for four years and they have had the support of their teachers. The principal made the teachers aware of their disabilities and have performed their duties well at Roosevelt.”

Brown says Fielder and Robinson “have proven that any child can excel.”

While physical disability can be a hurdle to academic excellence, economic and environmental factors can also be deterrents. Jordy Portillo will graduate fourth in his class at Bell Multicultural High School and he told the AFRO that his parents are low-income. However, his economic status didn’t prevent him from winning a prestigious national scholarship to one of the country’s best universities.

“I decided to attend Stanford University on a Gates Millennium Scholarship,” Portillo said, speaking of the scholarship program funded by billionaire Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda. “I want to go to Stanford to explore a new environment. The Millennium scholarship will provide me the resources to be independent while I am in school and I can focus on my education and not on how to pay for it.”

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson3

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson held a luncheon for top graduates of District high schools recently. (Photo Courtesy of DCPS)

Sierra Steele is the valedictorian at Anacostia High, an institution located in one of the District’s poorest neighborhoods. Steele was upbeat about the instruction she received there despite its location. “I had a great education at Anacostia,” Steele told the AFRO. “The school offers a wide variety of courses and that includes Advanced Placement classes.”

Steele plans on attending Marshall University in West Virginia and will be majoring in psychology. She said Anacostia prepared her for the rigors of college-level courses.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson spoke to the gathering and beamed as she talked about her high achieving students. “The whole entire city believes in the D.C. public schools,” Henderson said. Speaking specifically to the students she said “you now have the foundation for success.”

One of the District’s public schools shining alumni is Johnathan Hill, a rising senior at Morehouse College. A political science major, Hill was elected president of Morehouse’s student government association for the 2016-2017 school year. He delivered the keynote address, urging students to stay focused on their goals. “Be prepared for the future,” Hill said. “Study now and when the light comes on, you will be ready to make contributions to society.”