The timeline of district construction projects threatened to move the high-school graduation indoors. Students who’d helped pass the referendum in support of them bucked the decision.
By Matt Skoufalos | June 8, 2018
After construction projects threatened to derail outdoor graduation ceremonies for the Pennsauken High School (PHS) Class of 2018, the district announced a workaround Friday.
Instead of being held in the PHS gymnasium, the June 19 ceremony will be at the BB&T Pavilion in Camden City.
Students will be bussed, one-way, from the PHS parking lot to the venue, starting at 3 p.m.
Doors at the Pavilion will open at 5:45 p.m. for a 6:15 procession.
The district broke the news to the senior class in an assembly early Friday morning, during which students were rebuked for having considered walking out of school in protest of the indoor ceremony.
They cheered and applauded and took cell phone pictures of the slideshow announcing the decision, while coach and teacher William Snyder told the room, “It was not a mob that made this happen,” and urged them to thank the district leadership.
“There were a few people who properly handled it,” Snyder said. “We’re moving 3,000 people in five to seven days. This does not happen on its own.”
Superintendent Ronnie Tarchichi said the high school field was unsuitable for the ceremony because of preparatory digging for its $37-million renovation. Pushing back the project to hold a ceremony there could expose the district to cost overruns.
“Even by starting now, the all-purpose field will not be available by November,” Tarchichi said. “We’re hoping to have a Thanksgiving Day opener [versus Bishop Eustace], but I don’t know. All that’s up in the air.”
Although the default solution was to create a walking stage in the gymnasium, and move the ceremony indoors, Tarchichi said the district simultaneously had been working on multiple alternatives.
With 350 seniors bringing as many as six guests apiece, it meant finding a 2,100-seat event space.
“It’s hard to find someplace like that in this area,” Tarchichi said.
“Our parents do not want to go to Philadelphia. Even Rutgers-Camden can only house 650 students. We can house more than that in our gymnasium.”
But seniors “felt they weren’t getting recognition in the logistics of an indoor graduation,” said PHS Assistant Principal Caroline Steer, who initiated talks with the BB&T Pavilion.
It would have been a cruel irony, because the seniors “really did help propel the word of mouth about the referendum,” with their younger siblings in mind, Steer said.
Valedictorian Ronald Estevez said as much.
“A lot of people were hurt by it because we helped push the bond,” Estevez said. He’s headed to Stevens Institute of Technology in the fall.
Salutatorian Nicole Alfano, who’s bound for the Georgia Institute of Technology, pointed out that the graduating class did a lot of work to participate in the vote itself, too.
“As seniors, they made sure that we knew what the referendum was, and that we could vote,” she said.
Senior class president Mariah Gordian said her classmates most feared losing the chance at a processional graduation because indoors, “You just stand up and sit back down when they call your name.”
“I’m just happy that we were heard,” Gordian said.
“In my family there haven’t been a lot of people who have actually graduated, so it’s a big deal.”
She’s going to Rowan University.
Students confirmed that they had planned to walk out of school in protest of the change, but also because they didn’t know alternative plans were in the works.
“They weren’t answering the questions we were asking,” said Tiana Summers, who will attend Rutgers University this fall.
As important as it is to Summers and Gordian to be able to walk at graduation, it’s as much about their families seeing that moment acknowledged, they said.
“It’s their hard work that they pushed me this far,” Summers said. “They get to watch their child succeed.”
Producing the event, securing it, and transporting eight busloads of students to Camden will cost the district $28,000. For the students and their families, it’s worth it, said Pennsauken Board of Education member Diane Johnson. After the renovations to the athletic fields are complete, she can foresee a potential return to BB&T Pavilion.
“Even if it wasn’t for the construction, we’ll always have the element of the weather,” Johnson said.
“It makes everyone happy to have a solid location.”
Lifelong Pennsauken resident Kat Ruano said she is glad her daughter, Elizabeth Lanuza, will have the chance to walk at graduation.
But she didn’t want to downplay the importance of the students and parents advocating for it that drove that change.
“I’m all for teaching kids about accountability, when it’s good or bad,” Ruano said. “There’s a complete difference from being angry and standing up.
“You guys didn’t handle it properly to begin with,” she said of the district. “You’re making it right, but own it. Other than that, I’m happy.”
Lanuza is going to Camden County College in the fall, en route to Rutgers.
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