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Indianapolis Public Schools celebrates class of 2020 on screens, not stages

Zaria Townsend, senior class president at George Washington High School, films part of her school’s virtual graduation ceremony.
Zaria Townsend, senior class president at George Washington High School, films part of her school’s virtual graduation ceremony.
Provided by Indianapolis Public Schools

As she contemplated how to decorate her graduation cap Thursday afternoon, Shortridge High School senior Ariyana Burnett said she felt pretty indifferent toward her commencement ceremony planned for the next day.

Instead of marching across a stage to receive her diploma, she would celebrate her achievement by watching an hourlong commencement video streamed on her school’s Facebook page.

“It’s not the graduation that I deserve, that I worked so hard for,” Burnett said. “But something is better than nothing.”

Indianapolis Public Schools students, families, and teachers celebrated the class of 2020 in nontraditional ways this year due to the coronavirus. Each of IPS’ four high schools streamed virtual ceremonies Thursday and Friday. In place of large gatherings and graduation parties, car parades honked down city streets, school Instagram pages gave shout-outs to graduating seniors, and students posed next to Class of 2020 yard signs.

The pre-recorded virtual commencement ceremonies included school spirit songs and speeches from school leadership and top students. Seniors’ names were called one by one as their photos appeared on the screen. Rather than cheers in a packed auditorium, thousands of congratulatory Facebook comments piled up in support.

Crispus Attucks High School Principal Lauren Franklin said she wanted the ceremony to focus on what students had accomplished, rather than on what the coronavirus had taken away.

“Words cannot express how bittersweet this moment is,” Franklin said in the video broadcast Thursday. “I am so sorry that our school year and your senior year had to end the way it did in such an unprecedented manner.”

Franklin commended the 283 graduates — the largest graduating class since Attucks reopened as a high school in 2006 — for remaining engaged in virtual classes, many of them while working essential jobs during the pandemic.

For her part, Superintendent Aleesia Johnson applauded the graduating class for earning their diplomas against tough odds and building resilience in the process.

“You all deserve the most ambitious graduation ceremony on the widest stage with the biggest crowd we’ve ever had,” she said in the video.

Student speaker Faith Harrington encouraged her peers to become stronger through the unprecedented struggle of the past few months, noting: “This circumstance is not a burden, it’s a blessing.”

Anna Luna said she was disappointed after watching the Attucks ceremony with her daughter, Vanessa Medina, and mother. Medina graduated this week, a year early, with a 4.1 GPA, and Luna said she wished those accomplishments had been highlighted in the video.

Luna saw other schools make more of an effort to give seniors a chance to walk across the graduation stage. For example, some campuses assigned each student a time to do so. Luna wanted to watch her daughter do the same.

“That’s one of the recognitions that has been a big thing forever,” Luna said.

In lieu of an in-person commencement, the family mirrored their phones to their TV to see the virtual ceremony Thursday afternoon. Family members in Arizona were able to watch from afar, too.

Other families planned ways to celebrate in person, while taking social distancing into consideration. Shortridge senior Claire Wallace expected to watch her virtual ceremony, but also organized a drive-by graduation for Saturday and invited school friends, teachers, family and people from her church to stop by, drop things off, and have a cookie and drink.

Ultimately, Burnett, the Shortridge senior, decided to adorn her cap with “A Burnett” in green lettering with a small yellow crown atop the A. She’s relieved to be done with school — especially after a stressful few months of online classes.

She planned to watch her graduation video even though it wasn’t what she anticipated to end her high school career. Her family doesn’t care too much about the ceremony itself, she said. All they care about is that she’s graduating.

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