About 70 former students of Chester Community Charter School returned to say thank-you to founders Vahan and Danielle Gureghian for providing scholarships for them to attend private and parochial high schools.
"You've given me an amazing opportunity," said a tearful Mika Reed, 21, a senior psychology major at Neumann University, who had attended Cardinal O'Hara High School.
The day she graduated from sixth grade, she said, her father was incarcerated, and "I thought my life was over. Without this school sending me to Cardinal O'Hara, I don't know where I'd be."
The largest charter in hard-luck Chester, the kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school has faced state scrutiny for testing irregularities and low test scores. In August, the state auditor general said it had received more than $1.2 million in improper lease reimbursements over three years. The school has disputed the findings.
Gureghian, a Gladwyne lawyer, is a Montgomery County Republican power broker who founded CSMI Education Management L.L.C., which runs the charter school. The complex of brick-red buildings houses more than 3,000 pupils, or two-thirds of Chester Upland School District students.
Chester Community CEO David L. Clark said the event was a surprise for the Gureghians, who since 2009 have awarded $8.5 million in scholarships to 175 students to attend high school and college.
Even threatening skies couldn't dampen the enthusiasm and gratitude of the participants. Gathered under a tent, Clark started the event by telling the couple, "We wanted to say 'thank you' because you changed lives."
Then he turned to the students. "You are role models, and you will be successful. It took all of us and it took the support of the Gureghians," he said.
Finally, it was the Gureghians' turn to express their thanks and even shed a few tears.
"It's so nice to look in your eyes," Danielle Gureghian said, "and to know you have a great opportunity."
Then she asked the students to do something for her in return: to someday be in a position to give back to another person from Chester.