Blogging in E minor
Usually just a bunch of silly crap.

Two Days, Two Worlds, Two Graduations, Part II: The Graduation Biz

2002: During what proved to be a rather frustrating job search, I ended up being recruited by a privately owned alternative education program. The company contracted with several area districts to serve as a dropout prevention strategy – a matter close to my heart.

            After two interviews and a lot of soul searching, I accepted a job offer with this strange outfit and began working with at-risk secondary students in a seedy neighborhood – a far cry from the somewhat affluent suburban district where I did my student teaching.

            Once I got past the initial culture shock, I became skilled at working with the students we served. Some were years behind in cognitive development. Many were distracted by the typical pitfalls abundant in public urban high schools. Others simply hated school. For the most part, two-parent families were in short supply, and worse yet, the single parents were often too “distracted” themselves to provide a system of support to their struggling youngsters.

            Then there was this: “I don’t know what you expect me to do,” a parent of an underperforming 17-year-old proclaimed, “he too old for whoopins.”

            Yes, it was a different world, all right, but I learned to thrive in this environment. Five years later, I would be overseeing the operations in several districts. The best description of this role would be a cross between a regional manager, a principal and an errand boy. In this new capacity, I trained and evaluated staff, monitored instructional integrity, adjudicated major disciplinary issues, responded to client-districts’ needs, managed facilities, and planned graduation ceremonies.

            Graduations were always a lot of work, and I took on a large chunk of this so that those with direct responsibilities to students can focus on students. A non-certified staff member usually assumed some of the duties.

            We nearly canceled the first year’s ceremony because a nasty fight broke out amongst groups of rival girls during the rehearsal. The arrival of a parent with a crowbar only exacerbated an already ugly scene. As security intervened, one of the participants threatened to “spray this place” with gunfire, at which point staff pulled everybody back into the building.

            Fortunately, after banning five of our graduates from the premises, the show went on . . . under martial law it would seem . . . with the assistance of an zealous security presence.

            A former school board member once described our graduations as . . . grasping for a euphemism . . . “spirited.”  From the moment the graduates entered the auditorium until the time they left, the audience was persistently loud, rude and disruptive. If speakers got the slightest bit dull or long-winded, they would be drowned out by random epitaphs from the crowd, usually a shout out to a graduating loved one. In the past, guest would rush the stage in droves to take pictures, thereby interfering with graduates’ movements to and from the stage to get their diplomas. It was outright embarrassing to students and staff alike.

            Bear in mind, this was a culture for which screaming in church was acceptable. Further consider that for many of our students, the prospect of graduating from high school was nothing short of miraculous. As a result, our guests were filled with joyful abandon on this momentous occasion.

            We learned from our mistakes. Over the years, we succeeded in  developing a repertoire for redirecting this energy. We approached graduation like a rock concert.

            Rather than lengthy, cerebral oration, we bantered with the audience, giving them ample opportunity to participate loudly. Awards recipients were acknowledged en masse, and staff comments were kept brief. The practice of inviting keynote speakers was abandoned. The poor man or woman would go to great lengths to prepare, get dressed up, and travel to the ceremony, only to be greeted with random, rude outbursts. Instead, the featured speakers would be graduates, who were received better than community members.

            To counter the stage rushing phenomenon, I gave “blocking assignments” to staff prior to the ceremony. The first several rows were reserved for graduates, VIP’s and staff. During the diploma presentations, staff would sit in chairs shoulder-to-shoulder, blocking the aisles at designated pinch points. Looking out as I read graduates’ names, the human blockade remarkably contained the great onrush of anarchy that would otherwise ensue. This method was 100-percent successful, which very much pleased the security officers assigned to the event who would otherwise have to deal with this problem.

            We were pros. We handled the difficult crowd while providing a memorable sendoff for our students. More important, we helped students succeed who might otherwise fall through the cracks. We were masters of the graduation biz.

To be continued

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One Response to “Two Days, Two Worlds, Two Graduations, Part II: The Graduation Biz”

  1. Oh yes, the Graduation ceremonies are all but exciting! I will never forget the first one I went to to support you, it was definetely “culture shock”! I kept imagining that there would be a riot afterwards, people would run through the streets with their caps & gowns on fire screaming “I did it, I made it through High School!” I sat nervously waiting for it to end and couldn’t wait for it to be over with so I could calm my nerves.

    Through the years, the ceremonies only upset me, made me angry and wanted to yell at everyone to sit down, shut up and be a more respectful to our guests and stop embarassing your kids!
    You have patience and you are a true professional. I do enjoy watching all your hard work throughout the year coming to an end w/ the ceremony you have arranged and worked so hard for! These kids are very lucky to have someone like you on their side and they don’t even know it (but that’s okay too) 😉


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