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CMS Video Graduation Plan Sparks Anger And Tears

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Here's a slide from Tuesday's CMS graduation report.

Superintendent Earnest Winston unveiled his plan for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' Class of 2020 Tuesday: A video ceremony, drive-through diploma pickups and an in-person event in the fall.

But the parents and students who signed up to speak at the school board's Zoom meeting -- and who have signed petitions asking for something with more pizzaz -- were unimpressed.

CMS officials had boasted about all the creative solutions they were hearing from the district’s graduation task force. Speakers, though, told the school board that the three choices they got in a survey last week were uninspired -- all centered on a video ceremony, with the only difference being how to get the diploma.

As senior Tayo Fason put it: "Come up with better solutions than a video for one of the most important moments of our lives."

Safety Restricts Options

Associate Superintendent Kondra Rattley said health officials warned the task force that large gatherings were unlikely to be allowed by June, and police say they can’t enforce social distancing. She said any kind of in-person ceremony that includes safe distancing would require at least one minute per student to drive up or walk across a stage to claim diplomas. (You can download the presentation here.)

CMS has 19 full-size high schools with graduating classes ranging from about 300 to 800.

"Our smallest high school class would take approximately four hours and 35 minutes," Rattley said, "while our largest high school graduating class would take 13 hours."

The district also has about a dozen smaller high schools, including several on college campuses that would normally graduate in May. Officials said they want a uniform experience and pushed those ceremonies to June.

Gabe Schuhl, an Ardrey Kell junior who serves as the board’s student adviser, said many seniors are disappointed by the options, but safety must prevail.

"The fact is, if we can stop one person from being endangered or one person from losing a life, then that will take priority over our celebration," Schuhl said.

Familes Say 'Dig Deeper'

Seniors and their parents, a few dabbing at tears, talked about how important a graduation ceremony is. Their stories were personal, but their requests were mostly variations on Kemisha Ebron’s succint phrasing: "Dig deeper for the sake of the seniors."

CMS reportedly polled almost 10,000 seniors on the three video-ceremony options and got more than 5,000 responses. There was no clear favorite among the choices presented.

Some parents told the board their kids never got the survey. Ashley Aden, a Rocky River senior, said she was furious when she saw so little difference in the choices.

"I’ve never felt so unmotivated to take a survey," she said. "This was literally a slap in the face."

Even before hearing the public comments, Winston presented the board with a staff recommendation for a fourth plan, much like the other three: Make a video for each school, hand out diplomas in drive-through lines at schools, then celebrate in the fall – if the pandemic has passed.

But the recommendation was actually a done deal, as Ardrey Kell senior Giana Sidler learned while waiting at home for her turn to speak at the Zoom meeting. She had hoped to make a case for more creative solutions, but before she spoke, an email and text from Winston arrived announcing his plan.

That, she said, made her feel like she had wasted her time.

"It’s disrespectful to the 13 years of hard work that all seniors have given, and it’s just sad to be a part of this school community right now," Sidler said of the whole process. "It’s just, it’s embarrassing, honestly."

Officials tried to assure seniors that things will be better than they seem. They talked about balloon columns and yard signs, and said businesses are making donations to help. Winston said the window for creativity hasn’t closed.

"I want to emphasize that this is our starting point," Winston said. "This is not where we will end."

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