By Jamie Mooring
One in a series of success stories from Class of 2020 graduations, when the need for innovation brought unexpected benefits and connections.
With 128 graduating classes completing their time at Puyallup High School, saying we are a community built on tradition is quite the understatement. In a “normal” June, 5000 family members and friends gather at the largest fairgrounds in Washington State (a short four-block walk from the high school building) to send off the graduates with extreme pomp and circumstance. The almost 600 graduates sit in organized rows of purple at the base of the grandstands facing the thousands. A giant screen behind them flashes their image for few precious moments while they walk across the stage as their names are read, each student receiving 2-3 seconds of recognition over cheers, applause and airhorns. The moment passes, the screen flashes to the next graduate and the student makes the long walk back to their seat to wait for the end of the ceremony where they will find their family in a sea of other proud onlookers. It’s pure chaos and it is the way it has always been done.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a period of time when, like most schools, we had no idea what graduation would look like or if it would even happen. Communicating with parents and students it became clear we needed to do something. Through careful planning we took a moment many thought would not even happen and made it student and family focused with many personal elements to make the celebration special, albeit different.
The ceremony was held on our campus offering students the opportunity to walk some of the grounds again. Students were invited to bring up to 6 family members to join them in person. My Renaissance students spent three days decorating the route the graduates would be walking from the welcome and check-in location to the last spot for photographs on the other end of campus.
Students first checked in at our gym where many of their teachers, counselors, and administrators were waiting to welcome them through balloon arches of purple and gold, offering the first “Congratulations” on behalf of the staffulty. Students then joined their guests for the decorated walk through a popular outdoors common area, and around to the front of our building. Because multiple families were making the same walk and all needed to remain at least 6 feet apart, families could be seen posing together in front of signs of encouragement and pride, and snapping full-family photos in front of the designated backgrounds we made large enough to accommodate each group. As students entered the building, “Pomp and Circumstance” played as they ascended the stairs to our historic and beautiful auditorium. Inside the auditorium, many more staffulty waited – spread out among the seats – to welcome the students and their families into the space with applause and cheers as they made their way down the aisle. Before the stage, the families split off to get centered – only a few rows back – to watch this significant moment.
The students met me at the base of the stage where a staffulty member adjusted their caps and gowns, made sure their stoles were even and their tassels were on the right side. I checked the pronunciation of their name as they climbed the 5 steps to the stage. Checking that families were ready, I read the names and the students walked center-stage, striking multiple poses in front of the Puyallup banner while their families and staffulty cheered. We didn’t shoo them off the stage, we didn’t have other graduates on their heels – we just let them enjoy the spotlight in celebration of their 13-year accomplishments with their families only feet away. As they exited the stage to meet up with their party, students then followed the route through the building to different stations where we videoed the traditional graduation moments and families were invited to get their own photographs and videos as well: one stop for the official tassel turn, one where they honored the tradition of saying their Class Yell one last time, and one in front of the Puyallup High School sign where students were captured tossing their caps in the air.
The name-reading itself was filmed by a production company that compiled a video showing all the graduates at the different stations as well as the traditional speeches of our principal, class and ASB officers, and staffulty speaker. The feedback we received about the process was mostly positive: families loved it. They loved the opportunity to be so connected to the graduation process and to be part of the celebration with their students rather than being in a crowd of 5000 and only seeing their student on a big screen. Many families have even reached out to ask if it is possible to do a “hybrid” of the traditional ceremony and the experience we provided when things go back to “normal.”
The students had mixed feelings. They loved being back in their own building, in the theater they spent many hours in over the course of their three years at PHS for class meetings and important performances and celebrations. They appreciated the photo opportunities throughout. They loved seeing their teachers and having the opportunity to chat with them while they progressed through the socially-distanced-route. They loved their families being able to be so close when the moment of graduation happened.
But they missed their friends. They missed sitting all together one last time. They missed the celebration of the group as a whole. They missed parading in to “Pomp and Circumstance” together. They missed the unforgettable moment of experiencing the accomplishment of completing this major milestone as a Viking Family just as 127 graduating classes before them had done. In short, they missed each other.
I feel confident that we made graduation the best it could be given the circumstances and although I do celebrate the victory of helping families feel connected to this important moment in the lives of their students, I can’t help but feel heartbroken for what we could not give the graduates: each other.