State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams provides commencement address for charter school

Graduate Alisia Flemings and Sen. Williams

PHILADELPHIA, June 20, 2011— With her mortarboard neatly perched and gown hanging perfectly, Alisia Flemings stood ready to soar from her perch as salutatorian of the Laboratory Charter School of Communications and Languages and dive deeply into preparation to be the mechanical engineer she dreams of becoming.

While her classmates cheered her academic and athletic leadership awards, the biggest applause came for the coup she landed on graduation day – getting state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D-Philadelphia/Delaware), education champion, to offer the commencement address.

“I had heard of Senator Williams and all that he has done for education, so I decided to write a letter and ask him to come,” the Southwest Philadelphia teen said. “I was very surprised, and happy that he came.”

It was an offer that Williams said he could not resist, even amid a crushing schedule and duties as the chamber’s minority whip in the closing days of the state budget negotiations.

“When I read Alisia’s letter, I was impressed by her initiative and leadership,” said Williams, an architect of the state’s charter school law and a longtime proponent of student achievement. “I was touched by the opportunity to come and encourage her and all of her fellow graduates to continue on the path of leadership they already are exhibiting at Lab Charter and Ad Prima.”

Both programs, Ad Prima in North Philadelphia and two Lab Charter schools in West Philadelphia, were founded by renowned educator June Brown. They are among the state’s first charter schools and hold a joint graduation ceremony.

Some 54 graduates and more than 300 friends, family members and supporters gathered in the auditorium of the Main Line Academy in Bala Cynwyd to hear Williams share advice and insights with the class of 2011.

“You are the leaders of our community, right now,” said the four-term senator and son of a retired public school educator. “Because these three schools are not just three of the best schools in Philadelphia, but three of the best schools in the state.

“I am confident, that right here, in this auditorium, are future doctors. A Barack Obama. A music mogul. The next Marc Cuban.”

Not to mention, the next star engineer.

While Central High School admitted Alisia, her heart’s call led her to turn down the coved slot and instead choose Carver High School for Engineering and Science – the next plot on her blueprint.

She’d next go on to Drexel, and then launch her mechanical engineering career, tag-teaming with her sister in a few short years.

“Right now engineering is a male-dominated field,” Alisia said. “My sister and me plan on changing that.”

Science, technology, engineering and math – the STEM fields – are poised to offer the highest level of job growth and opportunities, regionally, nationally and globally. Encouraging more students to enter the STEM pipeline and be able to compete in future industries can become a reality – if students are prepared, Williams said.

It’s why he’s pushing to enact Senate Bill 1, legislation that would increase opportunities for students like Alisia across Pennsylvania by freeing children from underperforming and violent schools and allowing families increased options with a state-funded opportunity scholarship.

It is the latest of more than 80 education-centered bills he has sponsored or supported in the past 20 years, making him a leading voice in the school reform arena.

“There are thousands of Alisias in our neighborhoods, and for them, the sky should be the limit,” Williams said. “At a time when America lags behind most industrialized nations in math and science achievement, students like these graduates demonstrate that given the opportunity, they can handle an academically rigorous curriculum and compete with any students in the world.

“We need to give them opportunities to succeed, no matter where they live or their parents’ financial circumstances. Education is the great equalizer – and will be our economic savior, if we invest now.”