At Baltimore school rocked by a year of killings, a bittersweet graduation

As Excel Academy's graduating class filed into the auditorium Friday night, their families cheering, Sharonda Rhodes stood at the front of the room near an empty seat draped in her son's graduation gown.

She beamed. She wiped away a tear. She smiled again and wiped another tear.

"It's bittersweet," she said. "But I'm here. It didn't kill me. I thought it might."

In the program for the West Baltimore high school's commencement, next to the name of her 19-year-old son, Markel Scott, there was a single word in parentheses: "Honorary."

Markel, an Excel senior who had dropped out but fought his way back, was poised to graduate when he was gunned down in East Baltimore on March 16.

He was the fourth of five Excel students to be killed this school year, which concluded with Friday's graduation ceremony at Notre Dame of Maryland University amid staggering crime in the city.

Through the end of May, there had been 146 homicides in Baltimore, the most ever through the first five months of a calendar year.

As her son's classmates entered, the young women in silver gowns, the young men in maroon, Rhodes stood applauding. She said she'd been anticipating the moment.

"No matter what, you just can't stop pushing. You've got to go on," she said. "You get back up and you keep pushing."

Scott's best friend, Taylor Brooks, 20, was also in the crowd. She said she couldn't have missed it. She and Scott met in prekindergarten and had a brother-sister relationship, she said.

"I really wish I could see him walk across that stage, but I know he's looking down smiling, knowing that he did it," she said.

Excel Academy is an alternative school in the 1000 block of W. Saratoga St. in Poppleton that serves students with behavioral problems, as well as youths and young adults whose lives have hit other roadblocks, such as pregnancy or homelessness.

The 98 students graduating were those who made good on a second chance.

"Each and every one of you has overcome situations and circumstances that would have broken the average person," said City Councilman Brandon Scott, who gave the commencement address. "Most people would have quit on themselves, on their family and life itself if they had to live through what you have lived through and persevered through."

"You guys have succeeded where others have fallen down," said Councilman John Bullock. "You represent true champions. You should always recognize that."

"If I had a dime for every time I wanted to give up, I would probably be rich," said valedictorian Shukran Lewis. "When you are in doubt, take a breather and envision your dreams."

As the students walked across the stage, their families were rapturous. Young siblings shouted, as did grandparents. After the last of them received their diplomas, Principal Tammatha Woodhouse took the microphone and asked for silence so she could introduce the family members of "two of our students who are not with us due to street violence."

First up was Shannon Kellam, the mother of Steven Jackson, 18, who was killed in a triple shooting on April 29. Kellam took the stage and was handed an honorary diploma. She held it up in the air, holding back tears. The graduating class took to their feet, and they and their families cheered.

"It means a whole lot, just to see the fact that he made it," Kellam said of her son. "He promised me he would walk across the stage. Unfortunately I had to walk for him, but he made it. I'm very proud of him."

The cheering continued when Rhodes took the stage next.

"Y'all can do anything! Keep pushing! Keep pushing! Keep pushing!" she shouted, whipping her son's gown in the air. The cheers grew.

Markel's father, Leron Scott, met Rhodes just off the stage. He was always scared having a son in Baltimore, he said, because he feared violence would find him. Markel's death was his worst nightmare come true.

"This today really let me know he's really not here anymore," Scott said. "But I'll never forget him."

Woodhouse, the principal, told the students it was "the roughest school year" of her career, but that they had gotten her through it. Whenever she "got tired of watching the news telling me one more kid was dead," she said, she would think of her students and press on. When she'd get a text from one of them asking to meet in the morning, she'd have no choice but to get up and get to school.

"If they say you can't go to college, go to college and prove them wrong," Woodhouse told her students. "If they say you can't get a job, find two."

Shelly Higgins, a health teacher at Excel who had been close with Markel and served as the senior class adviser, organizing much of the graduation before losing her job amid school layoffs Thursday, said she hopes the students' diplomas are "a catapult for them" and a "catalyst to grow, to go beyond their borders, to look beyond the boundaries of Baltimore."

She is confident they will.

"They're determined to succeed and make it in life beyond what others have said or what society has said or how they've felt sometimes," she said. "I see them as fighters."

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