Traverse City News and Events

From Graduation To Prom To Banners, School Districts Get Creative For Seniors

By Beth Milligan | May 2, 2020

School districts across northern Michigan are grappling with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic – particularly when it comes to graduating seniors, who are facing the sudden loss of prom, graduation, senior parties, and other cherished rites of passage marking the transition into adulthood.

Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) has cancelled its prom events for juniors and seniors – originally scheduled for May 9 and 16 – and is looking at replacing the dance with a mid-summer event, such as a picnic, according to Associate Superintendent Jame McCall. The district’s honors convocation ceremony – which normally draws a large crowd – will move to a virtual ceremony for both Traverse City Central High School and Traverse City West Senior High School students on May 22. Significant IT work is taking place to prepare for that ceremony, McCall told TCAPS board members Monday, with plans to use senior photos and video clips of staff during the event.

Graduation remains the single biggest question mark for TCAPS. The district's graduation ceremony is slated to take place on May 31 at Interlochen Center for the Arts. McCall said TCAPS is in direct contact with Interlochen and has until May 15 to make a decision on whether to call off the ceremony. “What we’d like to do is hold off on that decision, because that is the one event that we’re hearing from our community and from our students that holds the most significance to them in a face-to-face venue,” McCall said. In the event the ceremony can’t take place on May 31 under the latest version of state pandemic guidelines, the district’s plan is “to delay graduation, not cancel,” McCall said. Options could include pushing the ceremony back to June or even July, or considering hosting it at an outdoor venue like Thirlby Field, where families could be socially distanced in the stands.

Additional efforts are underway to recognize TCAPS seniors, including highlighting students and athletes on the district’s social media accounts, compiling a senior photo slideshow, and planning some “surprises on both sides of town” for students, according to McCall. The district’s alternative high school, Traverse High School, has traditionally hosted an open house for students; the school is planning to do that again this year, with timing dependent on state orders. McCall also said there would be a “special celebration” for seniors when they pick up their caps and gowns at a socially distanced event, including decorated cars, buses, and school buildings. Interim Superintendent Jim Pavelka said the size of TCAPS’ senior class – roughly 700 students between the two main high schools – makes it more challenging for TCAPS than smaller districts to find safe alternatives for in-person events. But he said the district was considering every scenario possible, including possibly holding multiple smaller graduation ceremonies.

“We’re doing as much as we possibly can to honor these students,” Pavelka said. “This is part of our institutional ritual, so we have to find many ways to honor these students – and we will.”

Other area districts are working to find similar creative solutions. In Kingsley, a Project Graduation committee led by parent and Kingsley Middle School teacher Stacie Jankewicz raised funds to have 88 individual double-sided banners – each 24x48 inches – printed by Britten Banners, featuring each member of the 2020 graduating class. The Village of Kingsley offered space on the community’s light poles and donated man hours through the department of public works to mount the banners (pictured). Students will be given their banners as a keepsake when the project is complete.

“It’s been really cool to witness the response here in town,” says Kingsley Village Manager Dan Hawkins. “We’ve been watching parents and grandparents driving up and down our streets looking for their graduates, and some getting out of vehicles. One light post with banners even has flowers planted now at its base, apparently by a proud parent.”

Glen Lake Community Schools pulled off a similar surprise tribute to seniors by placing yard signs throughout the community highlighting the members of the high school’s graduating class, a move mirrored by other districts. Suttons Bay Schools Superintendent Casey Petz notes that downtown Suttons Bay is currently under construction for a new streetscape project; once it’s complete, the village will have new light poles on which the district hopes to mount banners honoring its 2020 class. Online and social media tributes are also common across districts, such as at Elk Rapids Schools, where the district is posting a “countdown shout-out” highlighting a new group of seniors every few days on its Facebook page.

Alternatives for prom and graduation remain challenging for those smaller districts, but with potentially more options on the table than TCAPS. Petz says Suttons Bay Schools has moved graduation – originally scheduled for May 24 in the school gymnasium – to a still-to-be-determined outdoor location July 26. Suttons Bay has 72 seniors total between virtual and in-seat students. “We’ve got the date now, and we’ll have an A, B, and C plan ready,” Petz says. Kingsley Area Schools Superintendent Dr. Keith Smith says the district is still planning to have prom and graduation – the ceremony is slated for the first weekend in June – but says “when and how that looks” is still up in the air. “I know it frustrates people to say we’ll wait and see, but I’m not cancelling or moving dates yet,” Smith says, noting Kingsley could consider outdoor graduation venues where social distancing is possible. “Two weeks ago people couldn’t buy certain things in the store or drive motorboats, so we’ll see how things loosen up here.”

All of the superintendents The Ticker interviewed highlighted the importance of letting students guide the planning process for alternative year-end activities, noting how devastating the abrupt end of the school year has been for seniors who’ve long dreamed about going to prom or walking across the graduation stage. “It’s been extremely emotional, the toll that unmet expectations and memories not made has taken on students – in addition to families going through a good level of crisis and trauma,” says Petz. “It’s kind of like a grief process. It’s a tremendous sense of loss…these kids are getting ready to launch into full adulthood during a time none of us has ever gone through before.” Petz says his encouragement to students and staff has been the same message he’s tried to share with other community members during the pandemic.

“We all had expectations and thought things were going to be one way, and now those things won’t happen,” he says. “But different doesn’t necessarily mean worse. It’s just different. We need to adapt, and we need to find ways to support each other through this crisis.”

Photo credit: Dan Hawkins/Village of Kingsley

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