With a few laughs and a few tears, the first class to graduate from Proviso Math and Science Academy added to the growing legacy of the fledgling school. They are its first alums.

The 106 seniors who collected their diplomas during a May 30 commencement were the first students ever to walk the halls of Proviso Township’s newest public high school. On that August day in 2005, construction on the building wasn’t yet finished and theirs were the only student voices to be heard in the hallways. The next four years brought more students, more teachers and, yes, the building was completed.

But no other class will be the first.

A day before he celebrated his students’ accomplishments, Principal Ed Moyer credited the graduating class – and their parents – with making a “leap of faith” and bearing a “tolerance for ever-changing conditions.” The math and science academy, the district’s only magnet school, had little more than promises to offer families contemplating an application.

“They signed up before we even opened,” Moyer said.

During Saturday’s ceremony, Moyer fought back tears as he delivered the keynote address. These students were given a chance to shape not only their futures, but the future of the academy, said Moyer, and they came through in a big way. With more than $5.8 million in college scholarship money between them, the class of 2009 has set a wonderful precedent for Proviso students. They surpassed expectations in the classroom and forced teachers to push them in new ways. Lessons weren’t an attempt at teaching these students how to think, said Moyer, but helping them understand what they can do with what they know – how to bring justice into society.

“You have touched my life in profound ways,” Moyer said. “Go forth; be respectful. I will never forget you.”

Students in the graduating class shared a similar fondness for their principal. In the weeks leading up to commencement, seniors donned T-shirts proclaiming “Moyer is my homeboy.” One graduating senior, Derek Ayeh, who received a full scholarship to college, said he had never been in a school where the principal came into the classrooms except to serve as a disciplinarian.

Nusra Ismail delivered a speech Saturday on behalf of her classmates and presented Moyer with a live python, the school’s mascot.

That the academy even exists is something of a marvel, school board President Chris Welch told the hundreds of friends and family who turned out for the ceremony hosted by Dominican University in River Forest. The board first talked about opening the school in 2002, he said, and was “ridiculed and persecuted.” Questions over funding and viability were raised, but graduating its inaugural class is proof that the district made the right decision.

“Your challenge,” said Welch, turning to the graduates, “is to reach back and lend a hand to others who will follow.”

Members of the student body recently demonstrated a commitment to the district and attended a school board meeting in large numbers, challenging administrators not to make a series of potentially drastic budget cuts. Speaking some 48 hours prior to the academy’s celebration, Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart said that so long as Proviso’s resources follow the students, the district is on the right path.

“It’s a difficult time financially,” Collins-Hart said.

Laura Swartzbaugh, a teacher who helped welcome the graduates four years ago, said on behalf of the faculty Saturday that the academy is unlike most high schools. There is no bell to signal the end of class and phys-ed isn’t part of the curriculum. Students are expected to make decisions about their own education. This class has pushed her, said Swartzbaugh, her voice breaking with emotion, to be a better teacher day in and day out.

“My school is not like other schools and that is exactly the way I like it,” Swartzbaugh said.