With Traditional Rites of Passage on Hold, High School Principals Find New Ways to Honor Graduating Seniors

Some principals have decorated school grounds with photos of the senior class, while others have paid visits to students at home.

Some principals have decorated school grounds with photos of the senior class, while others have paid visits to students at home. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

Prom and graduation are canceled because of coronavirus, but high school principals across the country are working to make sure that seniors still feel special.

With school closed, prom and graduation on hold and West Craven High School’s senior class quarantined at home, Principal Tabari Wallace hatched a plan: he’d marshal his teachers, form a caravan and hold a personal parade for each one of his 220 seniors—all in one day.

“This is the least we can do to show our Seniors we care and that they are in the forefront of our thoughts,” Wallace wrote to staff in an email. “They said there was no way to do a parade out west because we service 485 square miles, well we will show them. Eagles don’t follow tradition we make tradition! Ride or Fly!”

The next morning, Wallace texted the seniors, asking them to be at home from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Then he and around 80 teachers from the Vanceboro, North Carolina high school split into 14 groups and visited each senior’s home in caravans that included patrol cars from the county sheriff’s office, squad cars from local police departments and fire engines from four different towns. Wallace, dressed in a cap and gown, presented seniors with congratulatory lawn signs bearing their photos, gave speeches and led rounds of applause for their accomplishments—all while complying with social-distancing guidelines.

It doesn’t take the place of everything the seniors have lost, Wallace said. But the gesture will hopefully give the students a happy memory of the unexpected end of their high school careers, spent sheltering at home amid a global pandemic.

“I was powerless to fight this pandemic and the ensuing laws that followed,” he said. “That’s why I went all out—so they could cherish this moment, so they will have a life memory of something good from the second part of their senior year. That was the motivating factor for me, because those babies have lost a lot.”

Faced with the same unprecedented situation—a senior year ending remotely, without any of the usual rites of passage—high school principals across the country are finding new and creative ways to honor their graduating classes. In Graceville, Florida, the principal of Poplar Springs High School lined the school’s road with banners featuring photos of each member of the senior class. The principal of Westlake High School in the Atlanta suburbs rented billboards to display photos of the senior class. In Plaquemine, Louisiana, the principal of MSA West Academy towed a portable stage to every senior’s home, then held a miniature graduation ceremony for each student.

“We know it’s important for kids to go through that process,” Emily Martin, the school’s principal, said in a TV interview. “Any awards that kids normally get when they gather with their families over a meal at school, we decided we wanted to bring to them on their front doors.”

Other administrators used pre-scheduled events to surprise seniors. At Apex Friendship High School in Apex, North Carolina, principal Matt Wight lined the campus with yard signs bearing each senior’s name, then invited faculty members to surprise students who drove in to pick up their caps and gowns. The teachers danced and cheered, held signs and took photos as the seniors arrived.

The result, Wight said, was a lot of tears, a lot of smiles, and a lot of laughter, from both the students and their teachers.

“It was really powerful,” he said. “I’m not sure who was affected more—the students, their parents or our staff. There was just this outpouring of emotion. I was amazed. I’ve never seen anything quite like that.”

Wight also honored his 590 seniors in a more permanent way, handwriting each of their names on a blank wall inside the school, then partnering with a student to create a video tribute to the class. The task took about 10 hours—and six king-sized Sharpies—to complete, an effort Wight said was more than worth it to let the class of 2020 know that they hadn’t been forgotten.

Principal Matt Wight handwrites the names of all 590 members of the Apex Friendship High School class of 2020 on a wall inside the school. (Courtesy of Sydney Turner)

“I’ve been a high school principal for 14 years, and as soon as we closed and it became clear that we weren’t coming back, the prom and the senior awards and the spring musical—all of those things were just spinning around my head,” he said. “I was just trying to think of what I could do to let these kids know that we care about them and that we haven’t forgotten about them.”

Some high schools may be able to hold graduation ceremonies over the summer, though those decisions vary greatly depending on individual states’ regulations and plans for reopening. At West Craven High School, Wallace has scheduled both a graduation ceremony and a senior prom for Aug. 1, with a backup date of Dec. 19. He used the in-person parades for his students to inform them of his plans, telling them the individual yard signs were a promise that graduation would happen eventually.

“They knew this would probably be the big culminating event of this academic school year, so to see their tears, and to see how they reacted when I told them we would still have graduation was very special,” he said. “In my heart, I empathize with what they’ve lost. These babies will hold a heartfelt sentiment in me for the rest of my life.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington D.C.

NEXT STORY: Dining Out? Cities Allow Restaurants to Reopen with Seating in Streets, Parking Lots