Pomp and unusual circumstance: La Jolla schools find new ways to celebrate graduations and promotions

La Jolla High seniors participate in a drive-through celebration June 2 in place of a traditional commencement ceremony.
La Jolla High School seniors participate in a drive-through graduation celebration June 2 in place of a traditional commencement ceremony.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The faculty and staff of La Jolla High School celebrated the graduating Class of 2020 on June 2 with a unique drive-through celebration in place of a traditional commencement ceremony as orders against large, close-up gatherings remain in effect due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This version provided a few surprises along the way.

After dropping off their textbooks and other school materials, students who arrived during time slots assigned by last names were directed to drive around Draper Avenue and Rushville Street to the Coggan Aquatic Complex parking lot on Fay Avenue. A disc jockey and balloons awaited the seniors there, along with Principal Chuck Podhorsky, counseling staff and teachers, who also lined the streets to cheer with signs.

The La Jolla High School Class of 2020 received yard signs and other gifts as part of its June 2 celebration.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

As students pulled into the parking lot and stayed in their cars, they were given congratulatory yard signs and caps and gowns. Staff members took videos and pictures.

“We really tried to whoop it up for them,” Podhorsky said, “so they had as much of a good experience as possible.”

“It came from the students,” Podhorsky said of the drive-through celebration. The socially distant activities were planned by a committee of students with collaboration from Associated Student Body leadership to be held the week before the originally scheduled graduation ceremony.

Students didn’t want a virtual ceremony on Tuesday, June 9, the last day of school and traditional day for commencement. “Their desire was to leave options open for an in-person graduation in the summertime,” Podhorsky said.

If in-person ceremonies remain prohibited, the school will have a virtual ceremony later in the summer, Podhorsky said.

La Jolla High also will release a “special staff celebration video” for the seniors on June 9, Podhorsky said, and will coordinate yearbook, program and diploma distribution for a date to be determined.

La Jolla High staff and faculty with signs and balloons cheer for Class of 2020 seniors, accompanied by music from a DJ.
La Jolla High staff and faculty members with signs and balloons cheer for Class of 2020 seniors, accompanied by music from a DJ as the students drive through.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

“We always wish for seniors to have an absolutely amazing benchmark experience,” Podhorsky said. “Everybody’s heart is broken that we’re not able to celebrate it in the way they deserve. I’m super proud of them. I know they’re going to come out stronger and do great things.”

Other schools planning virtual promotion ceremonies

At La Jolla’s Muirlands Middle School, Principal Geof Martin said figuring out how to celebrate the promotion of eighth-grade students has been “super tricky with what we’re allowed to do.”

After talking with other middle schools, Muirlands decided to “put together a virtual promotion video” for release June 9, when the traditional ceremony would have been held, Martin said.

The pre-recorded video will include a speech by Martin and clips by Muirlands teachers and students. “We’ll provide access through Google Classroom for security issues,” Martin said.

“It’s a loss for everybody,” Martin said of canceling the scheduled ceremony. “But I think that if we step back and think about growth mind-sets, perseverance and working hard to get through stuff, that’s the important message. We’ve learned a lot about learning.”

Nona Richard, principal of Torrey Pines Elementary, said her school plans two celebrations.

The first, on Friday, June 5, is “an opportunity for students to drive by and walk up and receive their promotion certificate from their classroom teachers,” Richard said. The certificate distribution will be staggered by last names over six hours, with signs and balloons to mark the occasion.

In place of the in-person promotion ceremony, the school will stream a nearly two-hour celebration on Zoom starting at 10:30 a.m. June 9, Richard said. The ceremony will include remarks by Richard, the school police officer, a montage of student photos and the students singing a song. A Zoom link will be sent out the evening before.

“We’re thankful for students, teachers and parents exercising flexibility and creativity during this unique time,” Richard said. “Developing resiliency will serve students for a lifetime.”

La Jolla Elementary School Principal Stephanie Hasselbrink said she and the fifth-grade parent committee plan a virtual promotion ceremony for 11 a.m. June 9 via Zoom for the students and their households. The ceremony will follow a format similar to the Torrey Pines event.

“The unfortunate thing is it’ll be sad to miss the community and shared experience” of the traditional format, Hasselbrink said. But she feels “so fortunate we have technology where we can connect. We’re not missing out; we’re doing things differently.”

Fifth-graders at La Jolla Elementary received yard signs to soothe the sting of not having in-person promotion ceremonies.
Fifth-graders at La Jolla Elementary School received yard signs as a gift to help soothe the sting of not having in-person promotion ceremonies.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The La Jolla Elementary foundation and fifth-grade committee also surprised the soon-to-be-promoted students May 17 with yard signs and boxes of treats from local shops. Committee chairwoman Jenna Witkow, who has a fifth-grade daughter at La Jolla Elementary, said the students “deserve to be recognized. They work really hard and they’re getting bummed out. I wanted a pick-me-up.”

Bird Rock Elementary School fifth-graders also are getting yard signs and a virtual promotion. Principal Andi Frost said the ceremony may look a little different, sandwiching a pre-recorded promotion ceremony between a live introduction at the beginning and students attending a live Zoom celebration with their teachers at the end. The virtual festivities are planned for June 9, with the time to be announced.

Frost said the students also will be recognized Wednesday, June 3, at a Zoom assembly. “We want to, of course, honor, recognize and celebrate our fifth-graders,” Frost said. “This has been such an unexpected turn and a disappointment.”

Local private schools plan alternative graduation ceremonies

La Jolla Country Day School will honor its graduating seniors at 9 a.m. Friday, June 5, with a drive-in commencement ceremony in the Lexus Premier Lot at Petco Park in San Diego.

The program will include speeches, award presentations and recognition of each senior, with those in attendance watching from inside their cars, according to school communications manager Jennifer Fogarty.

Seniors at The Bishop’s School will participate in a “diploma-awarding ceremony on an individual basis,” Head of School Ron Kim said. Over four days beginning June 5, students will arrive with members of their immediate families in 10-minute increments. They will receive their diplomas, and a photographer will be available on campus to capture the moment.

“Students will be able to have that experience with their families and that sense of closure, which is so important,” Kim said.

Bishop’s also is asking families to save June 19 and July 10 as possible dates for a whole-group ceremony.

“This is one of those rites of passage that are really important,” Kim said. “It’s important on an emotional level for them to be able to say thank you and goodbye.” ◆