Caps, gowns, and class rings – for fifth-graders

It's a blistering June morning, but the boys in their Sunday best and girls adorned like fairy princesses are not concerned about the heat. Instead, as they thread their way through the streets of one of New York's most beleaguered neighborhoods, their hopes and fears are fixed on a single event: their public-school graduation ceremony.

"I could trip, or someone could make a mistake," frets Sujeidy Ferreiras. "My hair could get messed up," worries Emelisa Casanova, pointing to the elaborate construct of mousse, gel, and hair spray that required two hours of work that morning.

"I'm mostly just excited about going on to the next level," says Luis Campos. He's also dreaming, he admits, of the diamond earring he's been promised as a gift.

The outdoor ceremony they are about to participate in will include a dozen speeches, nine musical selections, numerous award presentations, and the individual conferral of 100 diplomas.

The only thing missing is typical graduation-day chatter about college, a job, maybe joining the military. That's because these soon-to-be graduates are from New York's Primary School 30 – and they're all in fifth grade.

Commencement day at many small colleges is more low key. But for some grade schools, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods, an elaborate ceremony is exactly what is expected.

Some educators criticize these ornate ceremonies as one more sign that today's children are being treated too much like adults. They question the new tendency to offer preteens not only the status of a high school graduation, but also its trappings, such as class rings and yearbooks.

Yet others praise these ceremonies as symbolic efforts to exalt educational achievement, especially in areas where graduation rates are traditionally low. Children who thrill at the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" at a young age, they argue, will feel encouraged to work toward a high school graduation as well.

"Graduation is a ritual that, as [other] cultures have found, can leave a lasting and enriching effect on the lives of young people," says Abelardo Batista, principal of Tempe Accelerated High School in Arizona, and formerly principal of an urban elementary charter school. Especially in troubled areas, says Mr. Batista, it's important to think of the dignity and respect such ceremonies can confer.

But not everyone agrees. "These elaborate graduations for young children can end up sending the wrong message," says Ray Johnson, an education consultant who until recently headed up a Detroit K-8 public school. "They can diminish the achievement of finishing high school."

Strictly speaking, he points out, until you finish high school, you haven't really graduated from anything – you've just been promoted to the next grade.

Giddy graduates, proud parents

But such distinctions are lost on the students gathered at P.S. 30. As they adjust the caps and gowns, many excitedly display their new class rings and discuss the prom, to be held in the gym immediately after the ceremony.

Their parents, of course, are more focused on scholastic achievement.

"We feel very blessed," says Cynthia Ealy, whose daughter Shantu will give one of two "academic excellence" speeches and play the flute in the school orchestra.

Shantu is wearing a pale-blue evening gown, with faux pearls shining at her neck and gloves stretching above her elbows. "A tiara is the only thing she's missing, and then she's Cinderella," her mother laughs. She and Shantu's father, Steve Riley, say they were more than happy to furnish her with an extra-special outfit.

But for some parents, such opulent traditions come as a bit of a shock.

At Roland Park Elementary and Middle School in Baltimore, Stephanie Shapiro was taken aback by the end-of-year events. "The girls were dressed to the nines, very frilly, with little shawls and lacy dresses and impossibly high heels," says the mother of two, who just attended both fifth- and eighth-grade graduations.

Ms. Shapiro, who grew up in a New Jersey suburb and barely remembers her own lower-grade graduations, says the ceremonies felt "more like church or a wedding." But she notes with approval that they focused closely on student achievement.

That was also the case during the lengthy ceremony at P.S. 30, in New York's South Bronx. "Close your eyes," superintendent Myrta Rivera instructs the young about-to-be graduates. "Think three years from now. I want you to picture your middle-school graduation."

She prompts them on through high school and finally to college graduation. "Think what an achievement," she says.

Celebrating the students

Students also are recognized for their current accomplishments. Five of the 12 speakers are top-scoring students; the program lists four pages of awards.

Focus on the students is the true key to a successful graduation, says Sheldon Benardo, principal of P.S. 86, another Bronx elementary school, which just graduated 240 sixth-graders at a ceremony with 1,500 guests attending.

Mr. Benardo's students wear cap and gown and generally arrive at school dressed as if for church or a formal party. But he says he tries to keep the ceremony itself less elaborate, with few speakers other than the students themselves.

As long as parents see their children spotlighted, he says, "they think it's the greatest ceremony that ever was."

Indeed, when the ceremony at P.S. 30 is done, parents rush to hug and kiss and photograph their young graduates, many carrying clusters of balloons and some brushing away tears of joy. Then the kids are off to the "prom" – pizza, sandwiches, and a DJ in the decorated gym.

Yet even as the rap music in the gym heats up, just a few yards away the school's prekindergartners are advancing in frilly gowns, crisp dark pants, and tiny tasseled caps – marching down the aisle to their own graduation.

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