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Equity, Pathways, School Community

High School Graduation: An Alternative

Steven Covey urges us to “begin with the end in mind.” Covey asserts that we build everything twice. First we build a mental image of the future, and then we build that future for real. As we educate our children then, what end should we have in mind? Is it the image of the typical high school grad with greetings from school board members and politicians and award presentations? Is it scholarship presentations where the assembled crowd gasps in awe when they hear the winning student’s average? Is it a ceremony where most of the students wait for hours before crossing the stage to collect their diploma without a word being said about them? Or is it something more reflective of the educational purposes we espouse?

There isn’t a school or district that doesn’t publicly state its belief that all children can learn, that doesn’t claim to have high expectations for all learners. If this is the end we have in mind, then we are striving for a life of rich possibility for all; we want every grad to have the capacity to contribute to the common good. So, how might our graduation ceremonies reflect these goals?

This was a question I struggled with as a principal and as a superintendent. I knew that we should shift the emphasis away from speeches and awards and do more to honour the achievement of each and every graduating student. The traditional high school graduation is one of those aspects of schooling that is so fixed in our minds that we can’t really conceive of a different way of doing it.

As I write this, President Obama is challenging American schools to raise their graduation rates, and in his speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he cited the example of the MET school (Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center) in Providence, Rhode Island. He praised the MET’s “individual attention” and “real world, hands on” curriculum. He might also have drawn attention to how they approach the ritual of graduation.

At the MET every student has his or her own graduation ceremony. As Eliot Levine details in his account of the MET, One Kid at A Time, “These events have four parts: the senior project overview, the valedictory address, the advisor address and the diploma signing . . . . Standing at a podium before 20 or 30 students, staff, parents, and invited guests, each graduate reflects publicly on her growth, her plans and the people who have nurtured her development. Following the valedictory address the advisor offers an extended reflection on the student’s years at the MET.”

In Seven Oaks School Division, we had been borrowing ideas from MET School founders, Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, for a few years. All of our 3,000 plus high school students have a teacher advisor who spends an hour a week with them throughout their four years in high school, knows them as individuals, knows their families, and acts as an academic and life coach. At Maples Collegiate, with more than 1,300 students in Grades 9-12, teacher advisors meet students while they are still in middle school. They help them complete their first high school course registration and they hand them their diplomas when they cross the stage at graduation, usually with a hearty handshake and a hug. So to make our graduation ceremonies more reflective of our aspirations for all of our students, we just went one step further. We asked our three high schools to read a citation for each and every student. In order to keep the length of the grad ceremony reasonable, this meant almost no awards and almost no speeches.

But it also meant that all students were acknowledged in a meaningful way, in a way that celebrated their unique experiences and contributions through their years of public school. It also meant that our grad ceremonies were turned upside down. In years gone by, the ceremonies routinely ran almost three hours with two or more of those hours taken up by speeches and awards and the final 45 minutes or so being a procession of grads receiving diplomas. The ceremonies aren’t any longer now, but a full two hours of the ceremony is devoted to reading a citation for each graduating student.

Some of the citations are similar to the award citations of past graduations, but now Teacher Advisors write about students they know really well. For example:

A student who strives for academic excellence, Keeley has demonstrated outstanding leadership and citizenship in school and community events. She has been a peer tutor, an instructor with the Lighthouse Program at Victory School, and dance assistant teacher. Co-founding an endowment fund to support school projects in Seven Oaks School Division, Keeley has also been actively involved with the Reach for the Top Team, graduation committee and Performing Arts Program. She has especially appreciated all of her experiences with the drama productions and is looking forward to more travel experiences. Keeley has received an entrance scholarship to the University of Manitoba where she will study this fall.   

Jarred would like to thank his family and friends for their support throughout his high school career, without them he wouldn’t be here today. The highlight of his high school career would be winning two provincial basketball championships. In the future he would like to be a professional basketball player or enter the fields of law or criminology. Jarred will be attending the University of Calgary next year. Jarred is the recipient of: the High Performance Achievement Award, the Garden City Collegiate Parent Council Award, the Seven Oaks School Division Special Award, Male Athlete of the Year, and the University of Calgary Athletic Scholarship.

While those citations may echo the award citations of the past, they and many other citations also thanked family members and teachers for their support.

Excited to be graduating, Melanie will always remember Mr. Hanson’s accounting class. She is considering further education at Red River College and working in a bank or credit union. She is appreciative of everything Mrs. Haworth and Ms Ward have done for her, and she is also looking forward to raising and enjoying her son, Trent.

Trevor would like to thank his mom for encouraging and supporting him throughout his high school years. We wish him luck in his future endeavours. Way to go Trevor, you did it!

In four years at Maples I learned a lot – even if it didn’t have anything to do with school. In the last two years, if it wasn’t for Mrs. Tabor, Mr. Campbell, and Mr. Huminski, I don’t think I’d be here.

I would like to thank all of the teachers that helped me, and also my family for always supporting me. Finally, I accomplished my goal.

Citations commonly spoke of grads future plans.

With strengths and interests in English and information technology classes, Thomas has appreciated Mr. Burr’s expertise and sense of humour. This summer he will work full-time in a sales and customer service job and hopes to pursue an apprenticeship in refrigeration. In the future, Thomas will also consider university education with the idea of becoming a police officer.

Bryan is a French Immersion student. Bryan plans to become a paramedic in the near future and will be attending the highly recognized paramedic program at the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology. The highlight of Bryan’s year was attending Red River College, working to obtain his Emergency Medical Responder certificate while at the same time completing his Grade 12 diploma.

Other citations appreciated students’ unique personalities and perspectives, their own take on the world.

This quotation holds significant meaning to Kevin: The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists, trying to adapt the world to him. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man. Kevin has appreciated his friendships and plans to learn and experience more of life while attending the University of Manitoba.

Mikey is going to be a starving artist. He likes to write and make films. He’s already got the character for it; a constant 5 o’clock shadow, secretive personality, and his thinking is beyond the rest of us. Spielberg move over.

Kayla is a French Immersion student. Kayla wants to thank Steph Chan for running down the up escalators with her, Mr. Meirs for letting her use his fountain pen, and Ms. Preteau for her insight on naturally modified foods. Look dad… one foot!!! Kayla is the recipient of The University of Winnipeg Entrance Scholarship.

Length of time it takes to get through Kindergarten to Grade 12 in dog years? 84 years…Thank God I am not a dog. Graduating with honours. Entrance Scholarship to University of Manitoba, Seven Oaks Education Foundation Plaque for Academic Achievement and Citizenship, Seven Oaks Optimists Club Scholarship, Manitoba Youth Leadership Scholarship.

“I’m sick of following my dreams. I’m just going to ask them where they’re going and hook up with them later.” Graduating with honours.

We both hate and love change at the same time, but what we really want is for things to stay the same, but get better. Courtney has been accepted into the University of Brandon and plans to pursue a career in music. Graduating with honours. Special Performance Scholarship Brandon University, Mae Mendoza Memorial Scholarship.

Many reflected on the highlight of their high school years. As you might expect, friends, athletic achievement, and arts involvement were frequently mentioned. Striking, however, was the highlighting of “real world” experiences.

Hilary has had volunteer opportunities with Darcy’s Arc, the Manitoba Brain Injury Association, and Kildonan Park’s public works week. With interests in singing as well as writing songs and poetry, Hilary is grateful to teachers for their influence and her positive learning experiences.

An experienced traveller, Dorota is eager to plan a back-packing adventure through Europe, revisiting Greece and Italy. She has volunteer experience at Seven Oaks Hospital and the Earth Movie Premier at the MTS Centre. She has especially enjoyed her experience with the graduation fashion show. An honour roll student, Dorota has received an entrance scholarship and plans to study politics and law at the University of Winnipeg.

Sindhu has enjoyed being involved in the graduation committee and volunteering at the Health Sciences Centre. She also appreciated being part of an internship project at the University of Manitoba and plans to work towards a Bachelor of Science Degree at the University of Manitoba. An honour roll student during her high school years, Sindhu is considering a career in medicine.

Each of our three high schools organizes its graduation ceremony and writes its grad citations its own way. At one, the students write them, and the teacher advisor simply edits. At another, the teacher advisor writes the citation based on knowledge of the student developed through a four-year advising relationship. And sometimes the citation is co-written. None of this would work without our teacher advisor program, which ensures that every one of our students is known personally by a caring adult and that this is not left to chance. It is intentional. In the words of Maples Collegiate Principal Kirk Baldwin:

“All students deserve at least one adult who is hopelessly caring about them and their success.”

To return to Covey’s point about beginning with the end in mind, these grad citations are a worthy end to keep in mind. After four years of high school and 13 years of public school, our students deserve this acknowledgement. We should be able to celebrate their achievements, speak with optimism of their future, appreciate them as unique individuals, and allow them to thank their families and their teachers. We should be able to say that all of our graduating students are learners and that they have all achieved something of worth and meaning. Isn’t that what we set out to do?

EN BREF – Dans la Division scolaire Seven Oaks du Manitoba, tous les 3 000 élèves du secondaire ont un enseignant tuteur qui passe une heure par semaine avec eux pendant leurs quatre années  d’études secondaires : il les connaît individuellement, connaît leur famille et joue un rôle de guide pour l’école et la vie. Ces tuteurs aident les élèves à faire leur première inscription aux cours en première année du secondaire et ils leur remettent leur diplôme lors de la remise des diplômes, généralement avec une solide poignée de main et une étreinte bien sentie. Afin que cette cérémonie témoigne mieux des aspirations de la division pour tous ses élèves, elle a été revue pour se concentrer sur les élèves individuellement, y compris une mention portant sur chacun et chacune. Pour ne pas prolonger la cérémonie, il y a peu de récompenses et de discours. Les élèves sont salués d’une façon qui reconnaît leurs expériences uniques et leurs contributions au cours de leurs années d’école publique.

Meet the Expert

Brian O’Leary

Brian O’Leary

Superintendent, Seven Oaks School Division

Brian O’Leary is Superintendent of Seven Oaks School Division in Manitoba.

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