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Make Graduation Day
A Special Day Across the Grades

Whether you call it Graduation Day, Move-Up or Step-Up Day, or Recognition or Promotion Day, the day you set aside to honor your school's "senior" class can be a special one with these ideas from Education World's "Principal Files" team.

No matter what grade levels are taught in your school, the end of the school year offers a special opportunity to recognize those students who make up the school's "senior" class. Many school districts reserve the title "Graduation Day" for grade 12 students, so the progression of students from primary to elementary, elementary to middle, or middle to high school is called by another name. Move-Up Day, Promotion Day, Recognition Day, or Step-Up Day are among the names given this special and memorable event.

This month, we talked with our Principal Files team about ways in which they recognize their graduates. We learned that the scope of recognition activities is as varied as the graduates themselves!


"We believe graduation is a time for families to come first. Families come to see their kids walk across the stage, so everything works from there," principal Tony Pallija told Education World. While Pallija is a high school principal, his thoughts about graduation make real sense across the grades. He and the staff at of North Canton Hoover High School in North Canton, Ohio, make an extra effort to communicate carefully and often with families about the upcoming events. "We spend the extra postage to mail each family an invitation to the ceremony along with information about how many tickets they will receive, parking, times, dress You name it, we mail it."

North Canton's ceremony also puts the kids up front. "The best speeches at graduation are the ones by the students," added Pallija. "We let them talk about their four years and the future. We don't get some Ph.D. to tell kids to be flexible or to be lifelong learners."


Many schools recognize special students at their moving-up ceremonies. "I like to reward students with certificates and trophies that recognize academic achievement," said Donnette McNeill-Waters, principal at Bennion Elementary School in Taylorsville, Utah. "If we can give trophies for kicking a soccer ball into a net, then we can certainly reward academic achievement and good behavior."

At Clinton (Michigan) Elementary School, principal Marcia Wright sends off her fifth graders with a special ceremony that celebrates their completion of the school's DARE program.


Wright shared another idea that can make graduation a very special time. "This idea takes a little planning, but it provides parents with a recording of their child's voice each year of school," explained Wright. "In kindergarten, the child might be reciting their ABCs and in first grade they might do a little reading." In second grade they might recite a poem, in third grade their times tables

"What a special tribute for a child to give to parents!" Wright added.

After seniors at Appomattox County (Virginia) High School walk across the stage to receive their diploma, "a member of the faculty meets them at the bottom of the ramp and presents them with a dollar bill," principal Michael S. Wills told Education World. "That dollar bill represents the first dollar those students will earn as graduates." This tradition also helps the faculty to be an integral part of the event. Every student is chosen by a faculty member to be presented with a dollar.

Dr. Seuss offers a message that is appropriate for graduation ceremonies at any level. "One of our teachers read Oh, The Places You'll Go by Dr. Seuss as part of his graduation address," recalled principal Brian Hazeltine of Airdrie Koinonia Christian School in Airdrie, Alberta (Canada). "It was very effective!"

"We do a Move-Up Day for graduates," Jim DeGenova told Education World. This "move up" enables students to meet with their new teachers, get to know the new facilities they will be attending, and ask questions, said DeGenova, who is assistant principal at Slippery Rock (Pennsylvania) Area High School and as well as a part-time elementary principal at the district's Har-Mer Elementary School.


During the school year, Donnette McNeill-Waters can often be seen with a camera in her hand. "I take pictures of special activities and of children in the daily routine," she explained. "I create a slide show that I show prior to awarding trophies on the last day of school. The children love to see themselves on the big screen. Then we top off the day with a PTA-sponsored carnival."

McNeill-Waters is not the only one who makes use of Power Point to create special flashback presentations that make graduation day an extra special day. Students have put together some "moving presentations using pictures of the graduates through the years," said principal Brian Hazeltine. "We have a fairly small school, so we can go back to their baby pictures and include about ten shots of each student over the year, finishing up with the graduation photo."

At Oak Hill High School in Hineston, Louisiana, that PowerPoint presentation might include pictures of students in kindergarten, pictures of them involved in activities they enjoy, special photos from school activities such as field trips, and photos of their teachers. Put to music, "these presentations can be full of laughter or nothing but wet eyes," said principal Marguerite McNeely.


Oak Hill High is a multi-level school that houses grades 7-12. Eighth graders have a graduation that is combined with seventh grades recognitions; but the eighth graders stay on after the ceremony to share refreshments with their parents. Each eighth grader also is able to invite a friend to the ceremony.

At the high school level, numerous things are done to create a special day for the 12th graders. "We make sure every senior is recognized during the ceremony for some special accomplishment," said McNeely.

Seniors at Oak Hill also plan their own special parade and are given priority lunchroom seating on the last day of school. "The big deal is that they are allowed to arrive five minutes late on parade day," McNeely explained. "Some wear their senior shirts, others might dress in costume. The rest of the student body watches as the seniors go by in decorated cars, honking car horns and playing their favorite music."

At the prom, the seniors offer a special Last Will and Testament to the lower-classmen, added McNeely. This is all in fun. "A senior might will to a deserving underclassman his or her parking space, a coveted spot on a sports team, a regular seat in detention hall, the charm to get a passing grade in a particular teacher's class, a favorite CD"

One of the most memorable graduations McNeely witnessed was one in which senior class members shared a moment that had meant a lot to them on their way to graduation. Some of the things they shared were surprisingly small things that meant a lot. "It was extremely personal and touching," added McNeely.

More Cool Ideas for a Special Graduation Day

A recent discussion on a listserv for middle school educators revealed some fun and heartwarming activities those teachers have seen among their schools' promotion rituals. Following are a handful of those ideas:

* In the days leading up to graduation, have the soon-to-be graduates write a letter to their parents and ask that the parents write a letter to their child. Exchange the letters at the ceremony.

* Make arrangements to record a video version of a PowerPoint presentation that includes pictures of the students throughout their lives. Sell the video at the graduation ceremony. The proceeds might be used to purchase a class gift for the school or to donate to the graduating class's local charity of choice.

* If you have a concession stand at the ceremony, proceeds might be used to purchase a school banner, books for the library, whiteboards for classrooms, bookcases, or other things the school needs.

* Prepare a special journal for each graduating student. Throughout the year, teachers, parents, community members, peers, and others might write messages to the students in those journals, which will be handed to the students at the graduation ceremony.

* Instead of presenting a journal to the students, have the students record in a journal their thoughts during the school year -- things they are thankful for -- and present that journal to their parents at the graduation ceremony.

* Teachers might divide up students' names and take responsibility for crafting a short but special introduction to each of those students. That introduction might include an anecdote, a few notes about the students' special strengths or the changes teachers have witnessed over the years, or other personal memories.

* At the end of the ceremony, have students walk down an aisle lined with students from the school they will be attending next. Those students will cheer, give high-fives, and otherwise congratulate the incoming underclass.

* As students come up to receive their graduation recognition, have the principal of the school shake their hand at one end of the stage. At the other end of the stage, the principal of the school the students will next attend will shake their hand.

* As each student crosses the stage, hand the student a rose for the student to hand to his or her parents.

* Present special awards to students who have come a long way in spite of the odds that life has presented them. Don't forget awards in areas that might otherwise be overlooked -- in technology or music, for example.

* Some graduating students who play instruments in the school band or orchestra might perform solo or as part of combos at the graduation ceremony.

* A retiring teacher might give a brief speech.

* Teachers who have taught the graduating students might take turns calling out names as students come up to receive their certificates or diplomas.

* As each student is handed a diploma, he or she might turn and face the audience for a few moments so parents or others might take photographs.

* If students have been in your school for a number of years, call them up in the order in which they entered the school. This works especially well in elementary or K-8 schools. Those who have been in the school since kindergarten will be the first to be presented their certificates/diplomas. Those who have been in the school since first grade will follow...