GECA celebrates first grad class, remembers TJ Owens

The Gilroy Early College Academy honored its first graduating

Had Dr. TJ Owens lived to see Gilroy Early College Academy’s
first graduating class strut across the Gavilan College Theater
stage Thursday night, there’s no doubt he would’ve been impressed,
friends and family said.
Had Dr. TJ Owens lived to see Gilroy Early College Academy’s first graduating class strut across the Gavilan College Theater stage Thursday night, there’s no doubt he would’ve been impressed, friends and family said.

The President of the United States apparently was.

The inaugural commencement ceremony for the alternative school – founded four years ago in honor of the late former Gilroy Unified School District board president – was met with cheers and a myriad of flashbulbs, as well as a letter from President Barack Obama recognizing the top 10 of the school’s 47 graduates.

“I commend students like you for setting a powerful example to all our young people,” the letter read.

Eleven of the graduates were scheduled to also receive their associate’s degrees from Gavilan during the college’s commencement tonight – a touted feature of the high school, commonly referred to as GECA.

“Isn’t that amazing?” said GUSD Superintendent Debbie Flores. “For us, it’s very exciting to have been a part of this. We have our first group that has proven this is a great model for some students.”

Keynote speaker Felton Owens, brother of the late Dr. Owens, said the students’ paths to graduation embodied his brother’s own journey to achievement.

TJ Owens advocated for civil rights and the importance of education, his brother said. He was a member the Rotary Club and was elected to two terms as GUSD board president. A father of five, TJ Owens was also an active member of Bethany Community Church in Gilroy. He died in October 2005 following a massive stroke at age 68.

“The road he traveled to success was not an easy one,” Felton Owens told students. “You represent the realization of the vision of TJ Owens. You are a role model.”

Student speakers shared their most memorable moments – the good and the bad – that came with enrolling in the smaller high school, which has 257 students and is housed on campus at Gavilan.

“I constantly wonder what life would’ve been like had I chosen a different school,” said student Kimberly Andrade Zarate. “GECA made me the person I am today.”

Paaras Chand said his time spent at GECA was so filled with rewarding experiences that he wished they could delay graduation “a few more days.”

“Perhaps what makes the time period so great is that it’s so short,” he said.

Richard Giacomazzi II said the graduating class was a group of strangers who grew into a family over time.

“Remember, if you can survive GECA, you can survive anything,” he said.

Alisa Owens, daughter of TJ Owens, said she sensed the students “really valued each other.”

“I know they are going to go on and do great things,” she said.

When it came time to hand out diplomas, an audible “Hallelujah!” rang out in the theater, inciting laughter from parents and graduates.

It was also an emotional night for some parents, including volunteer Heather Hickerson, who wiped away tears as each student’s name was called.

“These are all my babies,” she said.

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