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Chancellor praises graduate with legal ambitions, inspiring past

Donette Newyear, student body president at the Bronx School for Law and Finance, scored a coup when Chancellor Dennis Walcott accepted her invitation to speak at the school’s graduation today.

But the main attraction might as well have been graduating senior Karina Melendez, who overcame cancer, homelessness, and years in foster care to rise to the top of her class at Law and Finance.

GothamSchools profiled Melendez last year when she was one of five students nationally to win a prestigious scholarship that covers four years at any college.

Today, Melendez graduated as the school’s co-salutorian, and in the fall, she heads to Columbia University.

The master of ceremonies, Richard Kavesh, a teacher who was once mayor of Nyack, N.Y., called Melendez one of the most remarkable students he’d ever encountered. Melendez herself drew sustained applause with remarks in which she simultaneously embraced the end of high school and encouraged her classmates to appreciate the current moment. The program listed no less than seven awards for her, including ones for mock trial and moot court. Melendez says she wants to be a Supreme Court justice.

But it was when Walcott took the podium that the praise really began. Melendez had taken her seat on the stage but the chancellor invited her to stand next to him.

“Karina — to me, reading about her history, her life story — it was an inspiration to me,” he said. “You are so good that we should be talking about all the time your life story. Where you’re at now and more importantly, where you’re going to be in the future, is something that we should be bragging about on a regular basis.”

In his brief remarks, Walcott told the 62 graduating seniors that a high school diploma is not enough.

“Whether you become the next Supreme Court justice, or whether you become the next president, or whether you become a mayor, or whether you become a person who is the chancellor who will replace me, it doesn’t matter — we expect great things from you,” he said.

Newyear presented Walcott with a Law and Finance t-shirt, and he confirmed he is an “exercise junkie” who enjoys skydiving. He also said that three months ago — just before his predecessor, Cathie Black, resigned abruptly — he never anticipated becoming chancellor.

Of Law and Finance’s 62 graduates, 37 earned Regents diplomas. Seven, including Melendez, earned Regents diplomas with advanced distinction, the highest credential the state awards to high school graduates. Eighteen earned only a local diploma, which the state is phasing out. Last year, the school posted a 68 percent 4-year graduation rate.

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