Riverhead Charter High School celebrates its first graduating class

Thirteen seniors are making history this month as part of the Riverhead Charter High School’s first-ever graduating class — and all will be attending four-year colleges and universities in the fall.

Sporting the colors and apparel from their prospective colleges, the 12th-graders celebrated their achievements last Monday during the high school’s first annual college Commitment Day. Along Sound Avenue, cars passed by lawn signs displaying the students’ senior portraits — a few drivers honked in support.

When reflecting back on their time enrolled in the charter school, the seniors shared a collective sense of pride for the “legacy” they are leaving behind.

“It’s a huge honor to be the first to ever do it,” said Jah’mere Jackson, who will be attending Howard University after graduation. “I want to thank God; it’s a huge opportunity for us, even though it was stressful and I didn’t know what I was going to do if I didn’t get into the school I wanted, but it’s a huge blessing and I wouldn’t change it.”

In 2022, the New York State Board of Regents renewed the school’s charter for a full, five-year term, allowing administrators to expand to grades 11 and 12. At its founding in 2001, the charter school offered grades K-6 only, but has grown over time. To accommodate the spike in student enrollment, the charter school debuted its new high school facility at the historic Old Northville School House on Sound Avenue which became home to the inaugural twelfth grade class in the 2023-24 school year.

Patrick McKinney, principal of the Riverhead Charter High School, said all the seniors will be graduating on time and were accepted into four-year colleges. Additionally, more than 90% of the students are projected to receive an advanced regents diploma.

“I feel very proud of myself for getting this far: for not only getting in NYU, but for also getting a scholarship, basically a full ride to pay for it,” said Erronn Bridgewater, a soon-to-be first generation college student in his family who plans to study engineering.

More than $5 million in scholarship funds were offered to RCS graduates this year as well, Mr. McKinney added.

“This is really just the beginning of what we’re trying to build here,” Mr. McKinney said. “I really can’t name a better group to start with.”

The road to graduation was not always easy for the charter school students. There were times when the school had limited resources and some of the seniors — who began as early as kindergarten —remembered when they were learning out of portable classrooms, prior to the construction of the two-story Calverton facility.

Lack of space has been a longstanding issue at the charter school, students said. Jah’mere recalled attending class in the gym during his sophomore year and how there weren’t many extracurriculars — really only intramural volleyball, he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 brought about challenges for the charter school and other educational institutions nationwide when students had to adapt to virtual, remote learning.

However, many of the students have become masters at creating their own opportunities: holding their own fundraisers, participating in outdoor projects to combat erosion and advocating for equitable funding in Albany.

Many of the seniors value the importance of establishing interpersonal relationships and networking ahead of college — including Daniella Marroquin, who said she is already “cold emailing” coaches at Binghamton University.

“I think RCS is so centered on community and when you say we have a lack of resources, it doesn’t really feel that way,” Daniella said. “If you could ask anyone in the graduating class, they’re going up to someone, they’re asking for names, numbers, emails, and getting it done — so I think that’s what I’m going to take away: just getting out there and doing things that’s outside of the box.”

Sierra Conyers, who is pursuing nursing at Morgan State University after graduation, said there is one saying she consistently lived by during her years of at the charter school: “If there’s a will, there’s a way.”

“I didn’t have a lot of resources compared to traditional high schools, so we had to find a way to do certain things,” Sierra said. “A lot of people would be like ‘it’s impossible, you can’t do that, you can’t do this,’ but if you have a will to do something, you can get it done.”

In terms of other parting advice for future charter school graduates, Jah’mere encouraged his soon to be fellow alums to “just create.”

Erick Naula, who is on his way to Stony Brook University to study engineering, said his advice would be to “find that niche.” For anyone going through the college application and acceptance process, Erronn said to “always expect the unexpected” and even at “the lowest of lows,” there is always a way to rise up.

“We’ve always found a way to work through every obstacle that we’ve encountered, you just got to put your mind to it,” said Alex Arreola, who is heading to Stevenson University in the fall. “I’m glad that I was able to make it through high school with my second family, and that’s what we’ve gained here.”

With 26 seniors expected to graduate from the charter school next year, Mr. McKinney said he and Terrell Dozier, the high school’s dean and student counselor, are working on building their alumni support services program to further guide their students on how they can apply what they learned at the charter school in the post-grad world.

“They know how to handle adversity,” Mr. Dozier said. “They go through our battles with us — they understand everything has to be earned and not given, and I think they’re going to be ready to do that.”

Here is the full list of Riverhead Charter School graduates, their prospective colleges/universities and areas of study:

  • Alex Arreola — Stevenson University — Criminal Justice
  • Benjamin Tran — Brigham Young University (BYU) — Business
  • Daniella Marroquin — Binghamton University — Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies
  • Edwin Peralta — Farmingdale State College — Engineering
  • Erick Naula — Stony Brook University — Economics
  • Erronn Bridgewater — New York University (NYU) — Engineering
  • Jah’mere Jackson — Howard University — Education
  • Nilkamarie Santiago Gely — Johnson & Wales University — Culinary Arts
  • Olivia Smith — Clark-Atlanta University — Biology
  • Park Arana Jimenez — University at Albany — Criminal Justice & Law
  • Patrick Sanchez Elizalde — Johnson & Wales University — Culinary Arts
  • Rose Pineda — Suffolk County Community College — Health Information Technology
  • Sierra Conyers — Morgan State University — Nursing