New Hampshire schools show off their graduation innovation
When the pandemic threw them a twist, school districts thought outside the box to try to preserve senior send-offs
As New Hampshire’s high school seniors completed their final classes remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic, they also waited to hear if and when they could graduate with their peers.
Some districts, like Nashua, decided as early as April to plan virtual graduations for students at both Nashua North and Nashua South. Other schools postponed their ceremonies until July or August in the hopes that students can still experience the traditional pomp and circumstance.
Others thought outside of the box. Kennett High School, which serves the communities of Conway, Jackson, Bartlett, Madison, Tamworth, Eaton, Freedom and Hart’s Location, took its graduation plans to new heights — to the top of Mount Cranmore.
The sky’s the limit
Kevin Carpenter, principal of Kennett High School, said the circumstances under which this year’s graduates have had to complete their high school careers have been the craziest and hardest to imagine in his 18 years in education. So, when Gov. Chris Sununu extended New Hampshire’s stay-at-home order until May 31, he said he knew the school had to get creative about how they’d celebrate graduation.
“The idea to do something on top of the mountain came from the SAU administrator’s husband. My wife had worked at Mount Cranmore as their HR director, so we started talking about the possibility of having it there,” he said.
“The kids deserve it. This poor class of graduating students — whether they be high school, college, graduate, or doctoral students — this is their crowning achievement. To have this happen just stinks.”
Students will board a chair lift to the top of Mount Cranmore with four other guests. The all-day event starts at 8 a.m. on June 13, with each student receiving an individual time slot.
It will take approximately 10 minutes for each group to go up, then they will unload and go to the first “holding station” until they are announced to approach the podium and receive their diploma from Carpenter, the superintendent, the chairman of the school board and the director of student counseling.
Even though some guests won’t be able to accompany the graduates to see them actually receive their diplomas, they’ll still get to see pictures. Photographers will capture these moments on top of the mountain.
“Overall, it will be a 30-minute experience for each graduate, so we will keep that going throughout the day,” Carpenter said. “We have 172 students, so it will take 8 hours or so. I’m not exactly sure, because we’ve never done anything like this,” he said.
Grace Jarell, 18, of Madison, will be taking the chair lift up to receive her diploma with her parents and two siblings. She calls the ride “symbolic,” and says it will feel like she’s riding over “the valley that raised her.”
“I am really excited about it. Initially I was disappointed that we would not have a graduation in the traditional sense,” Jarell said. “I am really grateful that the community banded together around this idea.”
In the fall, Jarell, a student council and Key Club member, will be headed to Brown University in Rhode Island. She doesn’t know yet if she’ll be learning online, on-campus, or through a combination of both. But one thing is for sure, the Kennett High School Class of 2020 is going out on top.
“A month ago we weren’t getting any kind of graduation and thought we’d see it (a diploma) in the mail, or graduate over a Zoom call,” she said. “This is certainly a big jump to almost a better ceremony than what we would have originally gotten.”
Sophie Stimpson, 18, of Bartlett, is riding up with her parents and grandmother. Because she is an only child, Sophie is glad her family will be able to see her graduate on top of the first mountain she skied at age 3.
“I am so excited about it. I would have loved a traditional graduation and I never anticipated graduating this way of course, but this whole thing represents our community and our towns’ sense of togetherness so well,” she said. “It’s a good way to celebrate the seniors while maintaining social distancing. We can wave to each other on the chair lift even though we cannot be together.”
Phoebe Lyons, 17, of Center Conway, is senior class president of the Kennett High School 2020 class. She worked on a committee with school administrators to plan the event with Jarell, Stimpson, and other students. Calling Mount Cranmore the school’s “capital,” she said it is more than appropriate for the graduating class to end their time at Kennett High School this way.
“To be able to celebrate on top of the mountain is really incredible,” she said.
After the long day, the graduating class is hoping to participate in a car parade that evening. Thanks to the Department of Education, the Governor’s office, the staff at Mount Cranmore, and the school district, Carpenter said he believes Kennett students will enjoy a memorable graduation.
“If we can help inspire another school so that they have a unique experience, too, that would make me so happy,” he said. “I understand that some schools have to do it virtually, because not every school has a mountain in their backyard.”
Graduating together, separately
At Bedford High School, 371 graduating seniors will receive their diplomas in person, but they won’t necessarily celebrate at the same time or on the same day as their peers.
Instead, graduates will take part in small ceremonies over the course of three days on June 5, 6 and 7. They will team up with 14 other students from their home room or “advisory class” with whom they’ve shared classes over the past four years. Graduates will arrive with their families and will be told where they can park and when they can leave their vehicles. Students must wear a mask to attend their part of the ceremony, to be held in the football stadium.
“My daughter had a lot of illness in high school and I was looking forward to a happy ending to a not- always-happy four years,” she said.
Still, Ellis agrees this type of graduation is better than a virtual one, even though it falls short of a traditional ceremony.
To help salvage the Class of 2020’s senior year, she is working with other parents to plan a prom for later this summer to take the place of the high school prom that was canceled earlier this spring. Many of the girls already have dresses and it will be a way for the class to come together one last time.
“We are still in the wait-and-see period based on the latest CDC recommendations. We are working with a few venues on ideas and will see if they make sense,” she said.
Madeline Ellis said she appreciates their principal’s decision to hold this type of graduation in lieu of a virtual one and thinks that the one they’ll experience is probably one of the best options, given the restrictions that are in place due to the pandemic.
“Virtual events don’t feel like an event, it just feels like you are watching something,” she said. “For me personally, it’s really hard not getting a normal graduation. I’ve missed a lot of school and now I am missing out on more.”
Still, she is enthusiastic for the still tentative, unofficial prom planned before she leaves for Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., this fall.
“What my mom is doing to save the prom — I appreciate that. If we didn’t have that there would be nothing and that would be really sad,” she said.
Still up in the air
At the end of May, some families still didn’t know what type of graduation to expect. Sherri Nourse, a fifth-grade special education teacher and parent of Pinkerton Academy senior Bryant Nourse, 17, said she still didn’t know if the school’s graduation, originally scheduled to take place on June 8 at the Southern New Hampshire University Arena, will happen on July 13 or Aug. 10.
Pinkerton Academy has a large graduating class of 736 students, said Nourse, which would make separate, socially distanced graduations very difficult to pull off.
Seniors received a survey earlier this spring asking them whether they’d prefer a July 13 or an Aug. 10 date, she said. As of May 20, the date and location were both undecided.
“Parents have thrown out a lot of ideas based on what we are seeing all over the East Coast,” she said. “We’ve talked about McIntyre (mountain), Loudon (New Hampshire Motor Speedway) or the Lee USA Raceway — big venues that can handle social distancing, yet still allow you to see your graduate and walk across the stage.”
Seeing Bryant graduate is particularly important to Nourse because of what their family has been through over the past few years. Nourse beat breast cancer; Bryant’s father survived a stroke. Bryant is on the autism spectrum and has had to overcome his own hurdles, she said.
“For him to have accomplished all that he’s accomplished, I want to see that kid walk across the stage with his honor cords — he deserves it,” Nourse said.
Not only is Bryant graduating from high school, but he’s a Presidential Scholar who has taken several Advanced Placement courses and community college courses through the Running Start program.
He also became a member of the National Technical Honor Society as a sophomore. Bryant will attend High Point University in North Carolina this fall, where he will major in gaming and interactive media design and minor in mathematics. Right now, he’s got a job lined up at Hydratec in Windham, where he works as a computer coder.
“He has felt the difference (of completing school remotely) even though he’s not a big campus person. While he doesn’t miss getting up early and walking in between classes, he does miss the one-on-one with teachers in the classroom,” she said. “He hasn’t fully expressed how he feels about the whole graduation thing yet. It hasn’t hit him.”
Celebrating this summer
The original date was June 5 and planned as a drive-in event that would have required graduates to sit outside of their cars, socially distanced from their peers.
Parents and students were given an opportunity to vote for an early June graduation or for the alternative July 31 date, which was ultimately chosen, according to Wendy Baker, Brien’s mother.
Baker said she’s disappointed that she might not see her son graduate in the traditional way. Brien is not only a member of the National Honor Society, robotics team, and math team, but he is also the class salutatorian. Baker has another son who graduated four years ago, so she’s experienced what it’s like to see one of her children go through this rite of passage.
“My first graduation was wonderful and perfect, and I think what my son is now going to get — and I feel so disappointed,” she said. “For me, one of the biggest things is that my son is the salutatorian, and I want to see him recognized for that.”
Brien, of Hillsborough, is looking forward to attending Southern New Hampshire University in the fall, where he will study video game programming. The hardest thing about the school year was finding out that he’d never be going back.
“I have not enjoyed remote learning very much. I missed being at school and seeing friends,” he said, adding that he’s grateful the school administration allowed students to vote to delay graduation so that it might take place under better circumstances.
Catrina Kipka, 17, of Dublin will also wait to officially receive her diploma from the ConVal Regional High School in Peterborough, at a yet-to-be-scheduled graduation. The principal reached out to parents and students, who filled out surveys indicating whether they’d prefer a ceremony in August or next spring.
Kipka said she would prefer an August ceremony and is looking forward to a summer prom on Aug. 7 at Hidden Hills Estates in Rindge that is being planned.
“I am hoping by then it will be normal. It is nice to have a date to look forward to, even if it does end up getting canceled,” she said.
Kipka’s mother, Rachel, and other parents coordinated a senior “drive by,” which took place between May 23 and 25. ConVal community members from the nine towns that make up the district decorated their homes and put up yard signs to celebrate their seniors. Rachel said she will be sad if she misses out on watching Catrina graduate in the way that her sister did in 2018.
“I remember being out there on the football field and there was this double rainbow that appeared,” she said. “I’ll miss those motivational speeches that come up at graduation.”
Kipka, a tennis player, was president of her school’s National Honor Society and was the recipient of the 2020 Scholar Athlete Award given by the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association and New Hampshire Athletic Director’s Association (NIAAA/NHADA.) She is headed to Emmanuel College in Boston this fall and is looking forward to playing tennis in college, particularly because her high school season was cut short.
“I’ll still miss senior prank day, senior skip day — all those small things we look forward to. I’ll miss walking the halls again and seeing all of those school friends you normally don’t see outside of school.”
One student is missing out on two graduations
On June 9, Spaulding High School students in Rochester will wait in their cars and have a set time to walk across the stage and receive their diplomas. Students can watch a virtual graduation on June 12 that features photographs of each of their peers receiving their diplomas.
But Spaulding High graduate Alyson Cinfo will not be among them. Cinfo fulfilled her high school requirements earlier this year and entered the US Marine Corps under a delayed enlistment program.
Alyson’s mother, Lisa Horne, said her daughter always knew she’d enter the military and took part in the ROTC program before enlisting with the USMC. She left for boot camp in early February before the coronavirus pandemic. But soon, military travel was restricted to help protect both military and civilians from contracting COVID-19.
On May 1, Cinfo graduated from boot camp, but because of restrictions due to the pandemic, Horne was not able to fly into Parris Island in South Carolina to see her graduate. And she’ll miss Cinfo’s high school graduation, too.
“Instead of coming home for 10 days, she was shipped directly to Camp Geiger. The plan was to come home and go to Camp Geiger for 29 days and then the recruiter would put in for her to take a leave to get her home for her high school graduation on June 12,” Horne said.
Horne said she feels like she’s been cheated out of two graduation ceremonies. Still, she’s proud of her daughter’s achievements, and is looking forward to Alyson being recognized at high school graduation.
“Major (Dan) Heeter, who runs the Spaulding ROTC program, will be doing a special presentation in the beginning of the graduation honoring Alyson and her accomplishments,” she said.
Krysten Godfrey Maddocks is a former journalist and marketing director who now regularly writes for higher education and technology organizations in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Krysten won three awards — gold, silver and bronze — for writing from the Parenting Media Association in 2020.