By Melanie Lindsey
One in a series of success stories from Class of 2020 graduations, when the need for innovation brought unexpected benefits and connections.
Planning, and executing, graduation for the Class of 2020 was an exercise in creativity, patience and flexibility. From the very beginning, the voice of the student body was the number one priority – what elements of a traditional ceremony had to be maintained so that they felt the sense of closure, pride and celebration that a traditional ceremony holds. The students in the Ventura Unified School District were unified in their message: they wanted to wear and walk in their cap and gown, receive their diploma and turn their tassel in the presence of friends and family. The speeches, performances and other bells and whistles were not at the heart of the celebration and could be left out.
The graduation committee listened and went into action. Typically each one of the five high schools in our district graduates in a gym, cafeteria or stadium. Three of the high schools graduate on the same day. This year all five high schools held their graduation ceremony in front of City Hall.
Each student could bring one car – decorated and filled with family and friends – to accompany them while they took their graduation walk. The student exited the car and started their walk through balloon and decorated arches while pomp and circumstance played on the sound system. They stopped at a table where they picked up an envelope containing their diploma. They continued on to the table where the name readers sat waiting. They showed their envelope (which had their name printed phonetically, in huge front, on the front) to the readers and made their way up the steps of City Hall. At the top of the steps they collected their diploma cover while board members and admin stood cheering them on, and then stood under another arch where their name was read and their picture was taken. They then made their way down the steps to a marked area on the road where a board member and staffulty member stood ready to have them turn their tassel. Their parents were feet away from them in the car snapping pictures along the way. The student then continued their walk through two more arches to a final photo spot (some schools had their step and repeats hung for pictures at this spot). Staffulty members were stationed along the whole walk at 6 feet intervals to cheer for the seniors and say goodbye. After the final photo opportunity, seniors hopped back in the car and drove away.
The event took two full days. The two largest high schools held their ceremonies on Saturday – one school from 9 – 2 pm, the other from 3 – 8 pm. On Sunday we graduated the three smaller high schools. The first graduation started at 11 am on Sunday and the last one ended at 6 pm.
The parents loved the intimacy of the ceremony. They were with their senior through the whole ceremony instead of being in the stands and seeing their student from hundreds of feet away. The “up close and personal” feel of the ceremony is an element that has to be repeated. Each student had their moment, which made each one feel special and celebrated.
On the flip side, the seniors missed being with their friends. Each student was assigned a 30 minute time slot which was organized by alphabet. If we have to do this type of graduation again, I would campaign for students being allowed to select their time slot so that they can graduate with their friends. The individual nature of the ceremony (because we had to maintain social distancing) detracted from the camaraderie. Each student turned their tassel, but the CLASS didn’t. Each student had their name read, but few got to hear the names of their friends read.
We did not hear a single complaint from the students or their parents. Their gratitude was literally written all over their cars. The work that was done to make sure that each key element of the ceremony took place was met with tears and emails of profuse gratitude. It was a good day but to me it was missing the togetherness that the traditional ceremony has. I don’t know where we will be in June 2021, and I don’t know which ceremony I would pick if I had to make a choice. What I do know is that each senior deserves a longer moment in the spotlight on graduation day. And the parents should be able to see their student turn their tassel. I have ideas about how to make that happen – now I just need a principal crazy enough to let me try.