ROCHESTER, N.Y. — ​As school districts weigh the real possibility of finally returning to a somewhat normal setup in the fall, the past few weeks have given plenty of reasons to celebrate for class of 2021 members who learned through the COVID-19 pandemic.

High school is done, and on the afternoon of graduation, Jesus Henriquez took his final few steps through the halls of Rochester’s Vertus High School, this time as Class of 2021 valedictorian.

“Yeah, it’s gonna feel weird,” said Henriquez. “I spent four years here, so it’s going to feel different.”

Just getting to this point for Henriquez and other students has taken a whole lot of big steps.

“When I was little, my first grade teacher told me that I wasn't going to be anything,” he said, "because I had a learning disability.”

Vertus, a charter school for young men, bills itself as a school unlike any other in Rochester, where role models and mentors hold students accountable. There is no such thing as too much support.

“When you're dealing with teenagers and they're growing up, they're figuring out a lot about life, they're figuring out a lot about their identity and who they are,” said Michael James, Vertus senior recruiter. “It's encouraging when you can see people who have gone through it."

What students went through the past 15 months was unprecedented.

“This past school year has been kind of difficult because working from home, we didn't have like the teachers right there to help us with anything,” said Tyrell Nunes, who will be a junior in the fall. “It’s very important, because sometimes you could lose yourself or try to start giving up on yourself. And the teachers will come in and really give you the motivation you really needed to get through the day.”

Even during the pandemic, when students were home, they were in constant contact with teachers and others who work at the school.

“Going through school and pushing myself to be where I’m at today, that was motivation for me,” said Henriquez.

The next steps for the class of 2021 are the ones that set the course for the future. Henriquez addressed that, standing at a podium in front of his classmates and their families at Rochester’s MLK Park.

“For everyone who is graduating, it's been a very hard year for all of us,” he said. “This is probably the first time I’ve seen everyone all together since last year.”

The young man raised by a single mom from the Dominican Republic, the one who struggled so much when he was young, took the podium as Vertus' 2021 valedictorian.

“This pandemic has forced us to learn on our own. Forced us to stay on track with everything around us. Forced us to take risks,” Henriquez said. “But we made it!”