Toning down ‘graduation’
Commencement at this Santa Ana school was a serious ordeal. Boys had to wear ties. Girls’ dresses required shoulder straps at least 2 inches wide. Families brought balloons and flowers and decorated their cars with white shoe polish. Five rehearsals ensured flawless filing in and out of the auditorium by students in red gowns.
But if something did go awry, it was hardly the end of the world. After all, they were only leaving middle school.
At schools like Spurgeon Intermediate in a hardscrabble Santa Ana neighborhood, graduation is a time of pomp and ceremony. And, officials and parents concede, there is resignation to the fact that some will never make it through the 12th grade. Administrators have cautiously maintained the tradition, but only while also urging parents to be restrained and save the climactic celebrations for future graduations, like those in high school or even college.
Schools throughout the country in recent years have eliminated or scaled back eighth-grade graduations, concerned that over-the-top ceremonies too closely resemble high school graduations and imply finality rather than a mere transition to further education.
It is a serious concern in cities such as Los Angeles with dismal high school graduation rates. Although state dropout statistics are notoriously hard to pin down, more than one-third of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District -- about twice the state average -- will not make it through their senior year, and graduation rates at the lowest-performing schools hover near 40%. In the neighborhood where Spurgeon is located, nearly four out of 10 students do not complete 12th grade, state figures show.
The ceremonies take on a deeper significance and sometimes become a source of pride in cities with large Latino immigrant communities such as Anaheim, Santa Ana or Pomona, where many parents did not make it past eighth grade themselves.
In Santa Ana, officials have tried to temper the occasion by no longer referring to it as graduation. Instead, said Spurgeon Principal Robert Laxton, it is called “promotion,” because “this isn’t the end of the line; we are promoting them to high school.”
That attitude is widespread.
In Long Beach, eighth-graders get decked out in their Sunday best but do not sport gowns at their “promotionals.”
In San Bernardino, students attend a no-frills “promotion” with only a certificate and a few words from their principal.
“It’s not a milestone, it’s a benchmark,” said district spokeswoman Maria Garcia
And starting with next year’s sixth-grade class, L.A. Unified will rename middle school graduations “culmination activities,” with exacting standards for who can participate, and will present “certificates of completion” instead of diplomas.
At Spurgeon’s promotion ceremony in Santa Ana this week, families packed a stuffy high school auditorium snapping pictures and breaking into applause when their children’s names were read as they walked across the stage. The band played “Pomp and Circumstance,” the valedictorian spoke, and school administrators handed out gold-hued certificates and academic awards.
For some families, worries persist that it could be their youngsters’ only graduation to mark.
Valerie Hopkins, 31, said part of what justified a five-hour drive to see her youngest sister graduate from Spurgeon was the lingering thought that it could be her only chance.
“We want to go through a ceremony because it makes us feel proud,” she said, holding a small bouquet of flowers for her sister, Emily Rivera. “She wants to graduate high school and go to college, but that’s still a long time, and you don’t know what could happen in those years.”
But officials were eager to qualify it as a non-graduation.
“You are really the class of 2012,” school board member Rob Richardson told students.
“This is not a graduation,” board member Audrey Yamagata-Noji said in Spanish.
The canopy of brightly colored foil balloons awaiting the now former eighth-graders outside, however, suggested otherwise. “Congratulations Grad,” they read.
Years ago, Santa Ana school district officials had eighth-graders wear gowns at the ceremonies as a way to bring uniformity and tone down the pageantry that prevailed in the 1980s and ‘90s, said Yamagata-Noji.
“We had something that was supposed to be a few steps above a regular assembly, and you had girls in evening gowns and boys in tuxedos,” she said. “It just became very competitive, ridiculous and out of proportion.”
Parents also worry that too much showiness could send their children the wrong message.
“Not everyone goes on to graduate from high school,” said Maria Arroyo, whose daughter Kelsey -- the oldest of three -- graduated from Spurgeon this week, achieving the highest level of education in her family in the United States. (Maria, who grew up in Mexico, was educated only until fourth grade.) By forgoing the balloons, gifts and parties common among her neighbors, she hoped to signal that she expected her daughter to work hard to graduate from high school.
As they walked out of the ceremony, Kelsey told her, “Mom, I don’t want all those things; I’m going on to high school,” she recalled.
So although the ceremony at Spurgeon has kept its serious tone, the once-customary limos and extravagant after-parties have become less common.
Laxton, the principal, hopes it is a sign that families are saving the expense and effort for future graduations.
“Before, maybe the message was: You’ve reached a plateau,” he said. “We don’t see that anymore, so I think it’s progressed.”
Lizbeth Silva, 13, an honors student promoted from eighth grade this week, said too much celebration could unduly reward students who are being moved along to high school even though they have failed classes. They may not have the work ethic and drive to graduate from high school, she said. “It’s like getting their hopes up,” she said.
Teachers say they struggle to impress on their students how much harder they will have to work to make it through high school. There will be an exit exam, and they will not graduate if they fail classes, they tell them.
“We cross our fingers and hope, and some of them surprise us,” said John Henrici, an eighth-grade English teacher who helped coordinate the ceremony at Spurgeon. “The message is: This is what you get to look forward to two more times, three maybe.”
Rogelio Duarte, whose daughter Elizabeth graduated from Spurgeon this week, agrees that the message should be one of continual self-improvement.
“I try to motivate her to always be looking for the next thing,” he said, seated in the packed high school auditorium where the ceremony was held.
So after the ceremony, Duarte’s family wasn’t off to a graduation bash, but to a modest dinner at Denny’s, he said.
Though Spurgeon’s ceremony had most of the elements of its 12th-grade graduation equivalent, one item was conspicuously missing: caps. So at the end, students flung rolled-up programs in the air to mimic the cap-tossing ritual.
They’ll have to wait until high school for the real thing.