Sunday, June 24, 2012

Congratulations to the Class of 2012!

(L to R) My former students Jose and his brother Alex, a 2012 ACE graduate
This is my last post, after visiting 63 schools, work sites, and community organizations, and more than 15,000 of your visits to this blog. It has been an honor to serve as your superintendent for the past year. I look forward to working in Dr. Enfield's administration as Highline achieves greater and greater success in the years to come. 

My statement, showing the wear of twelve graduations
I have never been more proud to be superintendent of Highline Public Schools than over the past two weeks, officiating at a dozen high school graduations, and attending four other year end ceremonies. One byproduct of our small schools is the amazing quantity, variety, and personalization of our graduations across twelve schools.

My predecessor and mentor, former superintendent John Welch, wrote a recap of each graduation season in an email to principals. It was one of his shining moments, expressing pride in the work of others and the grace and inspiration displayed by our students. I'd like to follow with my own recap, on the blog, of course.

But first, I need to thank the principals and graduation coordinators in our schools for putting on twelve organized, formal, respectful, heartfelt, and spirited graduations. So much work goes on behind the scenes to make graduation possible. Special thanks also go to Barb Wilson from our staff at ERAC for tirelessly and skillfully supporting each and every high school.

Director Bernie Dorsey with fellow HHS alum Royce Badley
I'd also like to thank the school board. They genuinely enjoy attending graduations, which is good, because they each attend multiple graduations every year. They also speak to the graduates, each crafting their own heartfelt remarks. Four of the five school board directors are pictured below. (Apologies to Mt. Rainier alum and board director Michael Spear!)

Below you will see a picture and brief recollection from each ceremony. The schools are listed in chronological order of their commencement. Each of the photos below were snapped on my cell phone. The last thing I wanted to do was to be conspicuous, so these were taken at convenient moments. Graduation is a special ritual, a proud moment for students, parents, friends, families, and staff. I hope the short passages below convey the amazing events our staff put on to celebrate our beloved graduates of the Class of 2012.

Realistic Transition Program (RTP)

Students celebrate with refreshments after the sincere and personal RTP ceremony

Graduation season kicked off with the Realistic Transition Program ceremony. I had the fortune of attending last year as well. RTP's event was probably the most personal of the sixteen events I went to, as teachers told the story of each student. Many of them have overcome challenges and all have a path in life. I was deeply affected at times, hearing of students catching buses at o-dark-thirty to get to a job, sometimes to help support their own young child. Students had found jobs at Safeco Field and at many local restaurants and businesses. Some are moving on to post-secondary options, such as Bates Technical College and the Highline Community College's nursing assistant program. I also remember the proud parents. Every parent is proud at graduation, of course, and I can't exactly describe how this was different, but I think it was that they knew these kids had stepped into adulthood, accepting responsibility that not all of their peers will until they've grown up a bit.

Puget Sound Skills Center (PSSC)

No, I didn't call Jon, a welding student from Foster H.S., and coordinate our wardrobe!

Principal Sue Shields and the Puget Sound Skills Center staff hold two assembly style year end ceremonies at the Performing Arts Center (PAC), one for the AM session students, and one for the PM session. Each event featured the teacher of each of PSSC's 17 programs honoring a student of the year, many with an award that started with "golden" and ended with a tool from the trade. The Golden Wrench, Golden Hammer, Golden DVD, and Golden Toque (chef's hat), for example. Students from many programs arrived in uniform, such as Culinary Arts, Criminal Justice, and Nursing Assistant. There were two emotional moments. One was the presentation of a scholarship by the father of Jayme Thomas, a PSSC Nursing Assistant graduate and nursing student at Highline Community College, who tragically lost her life last fall. He spoke eloquently and passionately about her love of nursing and caring for the most needy. On another note, we celebrated the retirement of Automotive Technology teacher Ralph McKinnon. Many comments were made about his plans to ride off on a Harley. Enjoy your "golden" years, Ralph!

Community Based Services (CBS)

CBS graduates are honored by Jennifer Davis and a full house of family, friends, and staff

I'm not supposed to have favorites, but the Community Based Services celebration was clearly one of the high points of the past two weeks. As deputy superintendent Carla Jackson said, our CBS students are the most real, the most themselves, of all the graduations. Principal Gretchen Baar and the staff showed so much connection with the students, as seen through a twenty minute video Jennifer Davis produced that must have taken many hours to make. I was touched by four things during the CBS ceremony. First, there was so much love for these kids that we had to bring more chairs into the boardroom. Second, that was in part due to the high number of former teachers, both elementary teachers and former Highline staff, who came out to see their students one more time. Third, I literally have never seen such a diverse group of parents root equally hard for all students. It was an amazing display of racial harmony. And fourth, regardless of any communications challenges, the students had no problem expressing their deep friendship and support of one another. I spend a lot of time at youth baseball games for my sons these days, where sometimes parents and players can become aggrieved over the slightest inconvenience - a bad call by the umpire, or a player spending an inning or two on the bench. Seeing this display of love for others and a persistent "glass half full" outlook on life was much more of a gift to me than my presence as superintendent could have been to them.

Puget Sound High School and VITAL Program

Instructor Michael McSweeney celebrates with impressive graduate Anu

Michael McSweeney began the graduation for our PSHS/VITAL program students with, "Are you a mother or father who didn't think this would happen? Welcome. It really is happening." Then we were into "Pomp and Circumstance" and a wonderfully thoughtful ceremony. The VITAL program connects with students who for whatever reason didn't connect at their home high school. Two student speakers spoke on that theme, crediting the relationships and relevance of VITAL and PSSC with helping them succeed. School board director Susan Goding stuck on the theme of the day, greeting the graduates with, "You are all heroes, and I celebrate your tenacity." The guest speaker, Wendy McConkey, shared her amazing weight loss experience, dropping from 450 pounds to 150, and earning her a spot on Oprah. Her "let's be honest" message about overcoming mistakes echoed a theme of resiliency throughout the day. Many graduates were celebrated, but especially Anu, who despite coming to America just a few years ago has an aptitude for welding that many experienced welders lack, and teachers said could one day become president of his homeland.

Highline High School

With HHS assistant principal Paul Harvey, my first administrative colleague

From small programs in small venues, we drove down the hill to the ShoWare Center for our two comprehensive high schools. Each graduation had its own character, and Highline's was quite formal, dignified, and organized. Without feeling rushed, Highline got a huge graduating class through in an efficient hour and seven minutes. School board president Angelica Alvarez delivered a heartfelt and classy address in two languages, which has been enormously well received and appreciated by so many parents. Principal Damon Hunter exhibited great facility in pivoting between the formality of the event and the personal connection of engaging students as they crossed the stage. I enjoyed again donning graduation attire with Paul Harvey, as we had done in our first administrative job at Tyee High School in the 1990s, looking a little younger then, no doubt. Each graduation has core commonalities, but also individual rituals. Principal Hunter asked me to shake hands with every student arriving on stage right, and it was an exhilarating experience looking students in the eyes as they crossed the stage. There were so many optimistic, beaming, proud, and suddenly mature expressions, giving me a tangible sense of our outcomes that I wish every district employee could experience. It was also at the Highline graduation that I figured out if I listened carefully to the reader, I could greet most graduates by name. Somehow, "Congratulations Jessica" felt just a little more personal than a generic greeting. It felt like the least I could do to acknowledge thirteen years of hard work.

Mount Rainier High School

Mount Rainier graduates toss their mortarboards toward the rafters

All week, I wrestled with the ethics of taking a picture from the stage. At Mount Rainier's graduation, I figured out nobody would notice if I did so during the time honored tradition of throwing those graduation caps skyward after the turning of the tassel. Principal Julie Hunter assured me that this graduating class would do no such thing, but there's something irrepressible about the aerodynamics of a flat hat. Time to pay up, Julie. In all seriousness, Mount Rainier's ceremony struck a perfect balance of formality and character. It had the most music of all the graduations, with a knockout vocal performance of "Hero" by Zhane, a quartet singing "(I hope you had the) Time of Your Life", and a beautiful performance by the choir. The student speakers, D.J. and Kory, were upbeat, charismatic, and thoughtful as well. Board director Michael Spear delivered a speech displaying deep preparation that touched on many themes. It particularly resonated on the theme of love, as he urged the graduates to love their fellow classmates and to continue to develop a love of learning. Thanks to everybody at Mount Rainier who paid attention to every last detail of this flawless event.

Big Picture High School

Big Picture's ceremony blended the formal touches with a personal and progressive approach

This was the one graduation I didn't get my camera out for. I was sitting right next to the podium, and I didn't want to distract from this beautiful event. This one got off to a captivating start as graduating student Dallas played a Jimi Hendrix style rendition of The Star Spangled Banner on electric guitar. Wow, he is talented, and the audience was boisterous in their applause. Co-principals Jeff Petty and Loren Demeroutis delivered incredibly thoughtful remarks, setting a high bar for me, in my lone commencement address. Like my predecessor John Welch, I deferred to board members speaking and limited my role to accepting the class, reading the script shown at the top of this post. But at Big Picture, I got to pinch hit and spoke to the class on the themes of "be yourself, develop yourself, and believe in yourself." Having known the school since its creation, I enjoyed being able to celebrate their history and acknowledge just how well Big Picture students are prepared to follow that advice. Honestly, if there's one school that didn't need to be told to be themselves, it's the interested based, applied curriculum of Big Picture. But it seemed to fit, and I was relieved to share some extemporaneous thoughts without bring down the quality of the proceedings. Whew.

Global Connections High School

Every student was afforded the opportunity to speak briefly at Global's graduation

This year, Global Connections asked to try something new, holding commencement in the gym on the Tyee campus and changing the format to a highly personalized approach. We processed to herald trumpets (the long ones you might see announcing the arrival of royalty) and Pomp and Circumstance being played by remarkable Global Connections band. A set of risers in the middle of the gym created a stage, set before nearly 900 parents, friends, and family members seated in chairs on the gym floor and in the bleachers. Each individual graduate was spoken about for a minute or so by their advisor, and offered an opportunity to say a few words. At the same time, their name and a professional quality picture appeared on a large screen behind the graduates. At a hair over two hours, this was the longest of the twelve graduations, but it never seemed to drag on. Director Bernie Dorsey sensed the need for brevity and delivered his remarks not from a prepared speech, but speaking directly to the students as he imagined their parents might do if they had the chance to be up there. Principal Rick Harwood joked that he had a 45 minute speech prepared, but likewise he took three minutes to personally salute and advise the class. The group then adjourned to a reception in the cafeteria to continue the celebration. We have some limitations in how we schedule our twelve graduation ceremonies, but Global's break from tradition provided many benefits in terms of personalization and honoring students that we should consider continuing in future years.

New Start High School and Highline CHOICE Academy

Student speaker Tremelle, as Mike Sita, Tyrone Curry, and Bev Mowrer look on

Principal Mike Sita did a great job joining two schools in one graduation. New Start, a school that helps students recover credits and finish high school, and CHOICE Academy, a small, tightly-knit learning community shared the Performing Arts Center to celebrate their accomplishments. Both schools elected student speakers and shared in recognition. School board director Tyrone Curry made the first of his four graduation speeches, noting that this was their parents' graduation, too, and encouraging students to pursue their goals. This graduation was bittersweet for teacher Bev Mowrer, our 2011 Teacher of the Year, who is graduating along with the students, finally moving to be close to her husband again. She told students, "You've made an incredible difference in me," and advised students that happiness is about more than money and not to become a passive victim of life, but to choose to be an active hero in their own lives.

Odyssey High School

School board director Susan Goding addresses Odyssey seniors

Odyssey has become a school of choice in Highline, a perfect example of the tired cliche, "building the plane while flying it." Unsatisfied with the limitations of traditional approaches to meeting all students, Odyssey is rebuilding their program around competencies and technology, while continuing with students who started when Odyssey was a feeder pattern school. The Class of 2012 has been right in the middle of that transition and I echo the words of pride and appreciation they received from Principal Joan Ferrigno. Kate, a student speaker, shared a recent experience when seniors ran through the fountain at Seattle Center as a metaphor for making a splash in the world. And the faculty speakers were among the most compelling all week. Brian Overhalser debunked the myth that students today are difficult to teach, stating that this diverse group of students have enriched him. Timothy Chang recommended that students go through life asking questions, sharing that he had learned more about by listening to cab drivers and custodians than they could ever imagine.

Arts and Academics Academy (AAA)

Victoria sings the Star Spangled Banner as the AAA Class of 2012 looks on

Rookie principal Norma Barrineau made sure everything was just right for the AAA ceremony, arriving at 10:00 for a 1:00 showtime. I really appreciated her attention to detail. Tyrone Curry again spoke, eschewing his written speech for an informal conversation that certainly was boosted by having worked on the Evergreen campus for most of the Class of 2012's time in high school. He thanked the students for already doing things to strengthen their community, which he said is what we need. Student speaker Kurbin reminded many of us how old we are with pop culture references to Vanilla Ice and Soldier Boy. The AAA graduation started two traditions, I hope. First, they showed a video of each graduate sharing their favorite high school memory and what their next step would be. Second, Principal Barrineau personally arranged for every graduate to receive a flower lai. It was a great expression of support for the graduates.

Health Sciences Human Services High School (HS3)

With former student Jordan

One of the things I have enjoyed about being in Highline for 18 years is seeing former students from when I was a teacher or principal in schools or around the community. During my visit to HS3 this fall, I recognized a student who was in second grade the last time I saw her. She just graduated from HS3! Other than making me feel old, this was a great celebration. By happenstance, I was next to principal Jenni MacDonald as she greeted processing graduates on the "stage right" side. Each got a sincere expression of her pride and happiness in their last moment before ascending to the stage, capturing perfectly the connection between students and staff on this magical day. There was lots of emotion present in the HS3 ceremony, including a student singer who broke down in the middle of a Miley Cyrus tune and couldn't finish, only to be embraced by offerings of support from around the auditorium. The speakers were equally connected. Felix, a UW senior from the Dream Project, urged students to "inspire others as you've inspired me." Student speaker Jasmine found a useful analogy in old-school popcorn popping, with the students as blossoming kernels and their teachers adding flavor. "May your lives be filled with buttery goodness," she concluded. And faculty speaker Dan Noyes riffed on the theme "inconceivable," noting the aspects of the class that met that criteria and ending that it was inconceivable to image the school without the Class of 2012.

Technology, Engineering, and Communications High School (TEC)

Teacher Sarah Grant gives board speaker Tyrone Curry a little flowery bling

Graduations are always an interesting mix of longstanding traditions and new wrinkles. Many parts barely change: the entry music, speeches from what I call the "graduation genre", the diploma picture, the turning of the tassel, etc.. TEC's graduation reminded me of the subtle changes with the times. I was close enough to the podium to notice that the national anthem vocal cue came not from a pitch pipe, but a pitch pipe app on the singer's phone. The valedictorian read not from a printed speech, but from an iPhone. And while the processional was the traditional "Pomp and Circumstance," the recessional was "Don't Stop Believing." Principal Kelly Raymond did a great job of pulling it all together, and beamed with pride that of sixty some graduates, 18 had been accepted to the University of Washington. Of course, the school is proud of all of its grads, and expressed this by reading three things about each one right after calling their name: a school activity they participated in, their future plans, and who they wanted to thank. It was a very efficient and classy touch that would play well at any small school graduation. A final highlight was the address by teacher Lindsey Duerre, who spoke directly to the students. "My heart is breaking, but into enough pieces that each of you can take one with you." She gave practical advice about not burning bridges in life and challenged these young TEC school graduates to "make nerds cool!"

Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment (ACE)

Board president Angelica Alvarez (left) and principal Janae Landis distribute diplomas

Three things struck me at the Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment graduation. One is that they have lived "the show must go on," with principal Janae Landis acknowledging that some of the graduating seniors had known four principals in their time at ACE. The show really did go on, with yet another outstanding graduation ceremony. Second is the sense of stability amidst the change. There were at least two tangible displays of this - the sign language interpreter at the front of the stage, and faculty speaker Gail Korakis. Sign language has long been a staple of ACE, and Tyee before it, with the regional Deaf and Hard of Hearing program on-site, and ACE's popular American Sign Language elective. Likewise, Gail Korakis was at Tyee and has been at ACE as the office manager since the beginning. Gail praised the Class of 2012 for being "the most respectful class" and led the students in an exuberant cheer. Third, a theme of the day was progress, expressed in the most personal terms. Board president Angelica Alvarez spoke of her journey growing up in a family of migrant farm workers, stating, "I stand before you as proof of the possibilities...Set your goals high, and don't be afraid to change them." Student speaker Fatima sounded a similar chord, marveling that, "our ancestors never would have believed that we would be here today, but we are living proof." She ended on a forward looking note. "Just as our parents had a dream, it is up to us to rid the world of poverty and hunger." If Fatima is at all representative of her classmates, I think these kids get the whole "citizenship and empowerment" thing.

Aviation High School

Jenny and Karan address the Aviation H.S. Class of 2012

It came as no surprise to me that this Reba Gilman production was impeccably prepared and executed. It started beforehand, as Reba updated her script even twenty minutes before the processional, capturing the smallest nuances, and polishing a speech that accentuated the amazing volunteerism of the AHS Class of 2012. But it wasn't just Reba. Senior Salina sang the Star Spangled Banner in perfect harmony with her EriAm Sisters vocal trio, and returned later to belt out "Today My Life Begins." Board member Bernie Dorsey honored all partners in the educational journey, recalling a first grade teacher who told him that education is a partnership that is one-third the responsibility of the teacher, one-third the parent, and one-third the student. As students have grown, they have taken on more and more of the pie, but it has taken all three partners to get to this day. While I enjoyed my last turn accepting the Class of 2012, and some kind words by Principal Gilman, two featured acts really stole the show. First was the student speaker duo of Jenny and Karan, who between them probably were admitted to just about every prestigious college in America. Those are two sharp kids. But just as impressive, they were funny! Their dialogue was crisp and witty, like an Aaron Sorkin script, and they reminded me of my high school English teacher who opined, "You have to know the rules before you can break them." Jenny and Karan knew the rules of graduation speeches, then proceeded to flaunt them and occasionally roast them. While most student graduation addresses are as careful as they are thoughtful, Jenny and Karan moved effortlessly between nostalgia, sincerity, and irreverent humor. Bravo! Faculty speaker Marcie Wombold exhibited equally strong command of the moment, with a sober address that was both hard-headed and humane. She skipped the platitudes and used the backdrop of her own twentieth high school graduation as a canvas for her advice to "allow for variables." Her message, if I'm smart enough to summarize it in this space, was to not put all of your eggs in one basket. A lot of life is how you react to it, and the more invested you are in a single, focused, defined vision of your future, the more likely you are to have difficulty with the challenges life will almost inevitably hurl in your direction, and the less likely you are take take advantage of the true opportunities life brings your way. Be a pilot and a politician. Be a dentist and a sculptor. Be career driven and have a life. When a  major "variable" affects your life - illness, loss of job, etc. - having more than one passion that defines you will serve you well. I can't do justice to Marcie's speech, but for fifteen minutes you could have heard a pin drop in the Performing Arts Center. In a week full of profound moments, the engaged silence of this moment spoke the loudest.

My best wishes to the Highline Public Schools Class of 2012! Your future, like the future of the school district, is bright. One final time, thank you for having me as your superintendent.

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