Jessica Dinh graduated from North High School in 2002. She became a nurse, married and started a family. In 2016, her son played on a Johnston baseball team that made it all the way to the Little League World Series, an experience she shared with another of the team’s mothers, Jen Garcia. Maybe you remember the poignant story of the cancer-stricken mom being interviewed by ESPN at the very moment her son clouted a home run on national TV.
Jen Garcia passed away later that year. She was a teacher, which inspired her husband Joe to establish a nonprofit called Inspire Iowa’s Future as her lasting legacy.
When he enlisted the help of Jessica Dinh in coordinating an event called Senior Signing Day at an area high school, Dinh knew just the one – her alma mater.
Ten years ago, North was officially labeled as underperforming by the federal government. The fortunate aspect of that unfortunate tag was a substantial School Improvement Grant that came along with it.
Ever since, the whole Northside has been rumbling like a dormant volcano stirring back to life.
Turnaround Arts programming in all of the feeder schools; Northside Night, an annual community pridefest/songfest; long losing streaks broken in both boys’ and girls’ sports; dramatic rise in AP course enrollments; groundbreaking technology; a presidential visit(!); all of these things foretold even bigger things to come.
Thursday was the eruption.
Balloons, red carpets, college swag, college mascots, college cheerleaders, college presidents and most importantly, college announcements by senior after senior bound for exciting futures they prepped for at North High.
Dinh was there to see what could have passed for a commencement ceremony had there been caps and gowns.
Instead, each of the participating seniors, many of them “first gens” who will be the first in their families to attend college, donned the colors of their next stop and everyone got mic time to introduce themselves and share their plans.
There were lots of DMACCs and ISUs (the Iowa State cheerleaders and mascot, Cy, were on hand to welcome new Cyclones into the fold and toss t-shirts into the crowd) among the many colleges represented. Enlistments in the Army, Marines, Navy and National Guard were declared.
The By Degrees Foundation, a community partner throughout the Northside feeder pattern that’s all about tapping into the untapped potential that poured forth on Thursday even raffled off some scholarships.
Heather Isaacson is the Northside Program Director for By Degrees and she helped coordinate the event.
“I like it as a piece to growing the post-secondary college and career culture in our schools. The underclass students need to see our kids going on to further their education or career opportunities – as does the community for that matter.”
And they did on Thursday! The raucous auditorium was filled with families and fellow students.
North Principal Ben Graeber presided over the festivities and shared a formative experience from his college years; a semester in South Africa that overlapped with the presidency of Nelson Mandela and historic elections there.
“I found out about that program because I went to an event that offered free pizza,” he recalled, “and it changed my life. Be on the lookout for those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that await you.”
Other speakers included 2017 North grad and former Oak Park Elementary and Harding Middle School student Marisela Aguilar, now at Drake University, and DMACC President Robert Denson, who was right at home amongst all of the blue DMACC caps and pennants.
Members of the North choir opened the ceremony singing the school’s alma mater and the pep band closed it with the fight song.
Dinh said the event will become an annual one at North that her organization hopes to expand to other area schools.
“We plan to develop an event kit that other schools can use,” to do their own thing, she said. But this first one of its kind is going to be hard to top.
If it weren’t for the diplomas they’ll be handing out in about three weeks, even the official graduation ceremony would be hard pressed. Consider the mood for that event set.