Above, Principal Dechele Byrd and valedictorian Ugonna Nwankwo at Washington Prep High School, one of the campuses participating in the UCLA-LAUSD Collaborative.

College-bound seniors show off certificates from the UCLA-LAUSD Collaborative, recognizing their academic achievement.

Thanks to his own diligence and the support of his teachers – not to mention the seven Advanced Placement courses he aced – Ugonna Nwankwo will be graduating next month at the top of his class from George Washington Preparatory Senior High School.

“Hard work pays off,” said Nwankwo, who moved with his family from Nigeria when he was a young boy. “I learned to constantly go after my dream, and not give up.”

Nwankwo’s dream – one that will be fulfilled this fall – is to attend the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, where he plans to major in electrical engineering.

Nwankwo’s achievements were recognized last week, along with those of more than 30 African-American seniors and other students from 28 high schools, during a celebration hosted by the UCLA-LAUSD Collaborative.

The collaborative was formed in 2014, after a federal civil rights investigation found black students were unequal participants in gifted and talented programs and Advanced Placement classes. Its goal is to provide more opportunities, improve the academic success and increase the college competitiveness of the District’s African American students.

“This is part of the District’s effort to close the opportunity and equity gap for African-American students,” said Dr. Robert Whitman, director of Special Projects for the District’s Access, Equity and Acceleration Unit. “This unique partnership between L.A. Unified, UCLA and the College Board focuses on supporting African-American students to become competitively eligible for college admission.”

The ceremony at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion recognized students from schools spanning L.A. Unified – from Chatsworth to Wilmington, Van Nuys to Venice.

A dozen of the students will be attending UCLA in the fall, and 10 others opted to attend California State University campuses. In addition, honorees are headed for UC Riverside; historically black colleges Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Xavier University in New Orleans; and Los Angeles Trade Tech and Moorpark Community College.

Dr. George J. McKenna III speaks during the UCLA-LAUSD Collaborative celebration.

Before certificates were handed out, Dr. George J. McKenna III, the vice president of the Board of Education, offered the students some advice.

“If you are going to UCLA, you are going to a great school,” he said. “If you are going someplace else, you are going to a great place.  Get your degree, not your diploma – that’s for high school. Stay and get your degree.”

McKenna, the former principal of Washington Prep, also praised the work of the collaborative.

“It’s a practical program. It teaches students that college is not beyond their reality.  All of these students believe they are supposed to go to college. I’m impressed.”

One of McKenna’s former students, Dechele Byrd, is now principal of Washington Prep. She was accompanied by Nwankwo, the valedictorian, and Kenneth Walker, a high-achieving junior, who aspires to attend UCLA.

“We are a college prep high school,” she said, where all students take the A-G courses required for admission to the UC and CSU systems. “We provide our students with access to AP classes, support, and field trips to campuses to encourage them to attend college.”

A graduate of Washington Prep and Loyola Marymount University, Byrd is currently working on earning her doctorate from Pepperdine University. She had a personal message for her students – and all of those receiving support through the collaborative.

“I did it and you should be able to do it, too,” she said.