Kyaja Williams and her mother, Vanessa, celebrate during "Decision Day" at Western High School, where students revealed their college commitments to the school community. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun video)
The seniors ran down the aisle of Western High School's auditorium Friday morning to a chorus of screams, and one by one they revealed their dreams.
The all-girls high school — one of the city's flagship education institutions, boasting alumnae like Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — kicked off College Decision Day in the school district. The observance is part of a national "Reach Higher" initiative started by first lady Michelle Obama to celebrate college commitments on or around the May 1 deadline, when most students accept admission to the colleges of their choice.
The initiative encourages a National Signing Day to help schools across the country celebrate students' decisions. The first lady hosted one this past week for more than 4,000 New York students.
It was the second annual event at Western, where 277 girls revealed their college decisions to the school community in a celebration that included music, skits, video messages from celebrities and the White House, and visits from college representatives. As colleges flashed on the screen, the seniors ran down to sign T-shirts for their respective schools.
For Kamaria Kitwala, who revealed her commitment to the University of Arizona, it was a day that she's been looking forward to since she watched the event last year as a junior.
She recalled tearing open her acceptance letter from the school with only her mom watching, and was happy to re-create the moment with the peers she'd worked alongside for four years.
"We've all been through so much together, and I wanted to share this moment with everybody," she said, trembling. "Just knowing that we're all going somewhere is really motivating."
The event, modeled after the signing day held for athletes, has gained momentum in the city. Last year, six city schools with CollegeBound programs held a signing event, and this year 12 of the 14 CollegeBound schools are hosting events throughout the month of May. The nonprofit CollegeBound program helps low-income students prepare for and attend college.
"It's more of a spiritual thing that develops the culture of the school so they can say, 'We celebrate this decision,'" said Jimmy Tadlock, program director for CollegeBound.
The celebration has also spread to other districts. Baltimore County will host its first districtwide celebration of National College Decision Day with a social media campaign. Seniors can reveal their college choices using the hashtag #BCPSgoestocollege, and students who are going into the workforce or military can use the hashtag #BCPSgoestowork.
Applause erupted as it was revealed that Kyaja "JJ" Williams, a star basketball player at Western, would be attending Bowie State University on a full scholarship in the fall. It was one of more than a dozen schools she'd been accepted to this spring.
"I feel so blessed," Williams said through tears. "As a single parent, this has been our support system. They are like our wings. They help us keep carrying on."
The 17-year-old never thought she'd attend college, let alone for basketball. She was encouraged to join a team after her gym teacher watched her casually make half-court shots in class.
"I didn't think I would make it because I didn't have any money," Williams said. "But I feel like I put in the work and it's paying off. I feel like I'm a representation of youth, young women and the future."