Reinvention of a Tradition: Drive-Thru Graduation and the Class of 2020

This was originally posted to https://learnercenteredleadership.blogspot.com/ on June 14, 2020.

My daughter graduated from high school last week.  Along with the other graduates of the Class of 2020, her senior year has been unique, remarkable, and challenging.  Her adaptability, resilience, and positivity has been impressive and inspiring.  And yet the sense of loss is profound.  She’s missed Prom, yearbook signings, and her school dance performances.  Most significantly, she’s missed the opportunity to be with her friends and classmates, many of whom she has known since preschool, as they have entered their final months of high school.  

In my life, I have seen high school graduation as a rite of passage, one that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood.  I have very strong memories of my own high school graduation.  As a school administrator I’ve sat on the stage, handed out diplomas, and smiled for hours at a time while shaking hands with proud graduates.  High school graduation is a big deal.  

And so I’ve been sad for some time as it has been clear that my daughter would not be able to have a traditional high school graduation ceremony.  With campuses closed for the year and strict social distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, having thousands of people in the football stadium to celebrate hundreds of graduates was clearly not an option for the school.  

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and the non-viability of a traditional ceremony compelled a different approach.  It required creativity, ingenuity, and imagination.  There were significant constraints and there were no guarantees that something unique would be practicable.  And yet, out of necessity, a new model was invented.  

This new model, the “drive-thru graduation,” included many of the elements of a traditional graduation ceremony.  In fact, they managed to preserve many of the best, most important parts of the experience.  

We were told to drive to the school in the evening at a predetermined time based on last name.  We were encouraged to decorate our cars with congratulatory messages.  We knew that we would drive through the student parking lot and that at some point our graduate would get out of the car to receive her diploma and take a photo.  None of us had ever been through this type of ceremony so it was hard to know exactly what to expect.  

When we drove to the school the traffic was backed up significantly.  A long, long line of cars went on forever and my immediate instinct was to fear that this was going to turn into a debacle.  That anxiety turned out to be completely unfounded.  The mood was festive, people were patient, and there were spontaneous cacophonies of honking and cheering.  

There was a live-feed on YouTube of the stage and my daughter used her phone to watch her classmates receive their diplomas.  She texted, called, and had video chats with her friends who were in line or who had already crossed the stage.  In spite of the physical separation of our vehicles, there was a sense of connection and community.  

It took a very long time for us to get into the parking lot.  The anticipation created a sense of excitement, and when we entered the lot there were lines of teachers and staff to greet us. They were wearing masks and they should have been exhausted – with a last name at the end of the alphabet we were near the tail end of a very long event.  In spite of the masks and in spite of the late hour, it was clear that the teachers were genuinely happy to see the students that had been off-campus for several months.  The spontaneous honking celebrations continued.  My daughter took selfies from the car with her favorite teachers applauding in the background.  

As we slowly snaked through the parking lot, there were several screens with video projectors and sound systems.  The principal and valedictorian speeches were fantastic.  The Board President accepted the class of 2020.  

Click here to see a video of the graduation speeches

Then we drove through the back of the campus to the stage.  There were posters all over and signs to congratulate the graduates.  My daughter had not been on campus for three months.  This would be her last time at the school as a student.  She became emotional as we headed for the stage. When we arrived at the stage, she exited the vehicle, arranged her cap and gown, and we watched from ten feet away as she crossed to receive her diploma.  The principal greeted her and they posed for a photo.  We honked, cheered, and applauded as loudly as we could.  

The drive-thru graduation was fantastic.  In fact, it may have been better than a traditional ceremony.  We could actually see the graduate.  The late evening event meant that we were not battling the heat.  The event felt personal.  There were opportunities to connect with others through technology.  Teachers and staff had the chance to congratulate the graduates and their families.  It preserved many elements – including wearing caps and gowns, walking across the stage, and hearing from speakers – that made it feel familiar in spite of the significant changes.  

So what can we learn from the drive-thru graduation? I would offer three takeaways:

  1. START: We can do things differently, create new experiences, and begin new traditions. 
  2. STOP: We can stop doing things that don’t make sense.  
  3. CONTINUE: We can continue some traditions.  

Given the current context, we have an opportunity to reconsider everything.  This is likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent with new and different constraints. There is no reason to eliminate the best parts of our educational system.  Some of the things that have worked in the past will continue to work now. Using a simple Start/Stop/Continue frame, we can be mindful and strategic as we navigate through significant uncertainty. 

I am grateful for the school and district leadership and staff that made the drive-thru graduation a possibility for our family.  Educators are resourceful and imaginative.  I am optimistic and hopeful that we can reinvent other aspects of our educational model, including the ways in which we define success, grades, grade levels, schedules, curriculum, and community.  I am optimistic that we can start new models, stop those practices that are outmoded, and continue with traditions where it makes sense.  

Finally, I am proud of my daughter and proud of our students.  Congratulations to the Class of 2020.  You are blazing new trails for a bright future.  

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