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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Up-close, personal and virtual could be future of Spokane graduations after successful commencements

It was a weekend full of fun – and full of irony.

In the era of social distancing and no hugs allowed, Spokane Public Schools just pulled off the most personal, intimate graduation in its history.

Students laughed and cried, while their families shot enough close-up videos to embarrass their new graduates for the rest of their lives.

“It feels good to know that we’re being honored, no matter what,” Ferris High School senior Adela Alimamovic said.

And no one was thinking about the coronavirus, the cause of so much angst over what graduation would look and feel like.

“What could have been a dry and impersonal vehicular-based, drive-through event was, in fact, silly and celebratory and all kinds of good and giddy and fun,” said Marybeth Smith, principal at Lewis and Clark High School.

So much fun, in fact, that the district may re-examine its tradition of staging commencements at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena.

“I will be hard-pressed to return to the somber celebrations of Arena graduations past,” said Smith, echoing the feelings of other principals.

“There’s just something so special about watching families love on their kids all up-close and personal like we got to do on Sunday,” Smith said. “I tell you, it was about as much fun as I’ve had as a principal.”

It was the same story on Saturday at North Central High School, where Principal Steve Fisk presided over “a really special” drive-thru event that allowed families to pull up close in their vehicles and soak in the moment.

“It was better than I expected,” Fisk said. “In a typical graduation you might get three seconds on the stage.”

Instead, they got a minute and a half – time enough for families to pull up close in their vehicles and soak in the moment.

“We really didn’t know what to expect,” said Fisk, who said he received 24 emails after the event. “All of them were positive.”

At Rogers High School, Principal Lori Wyborney got the same feedback after Saturday’s event.

“The comment I heard the most from the kids was ‘This is better than I expected’ – the kids were happy and that made it worthwhile for me,” Wyborney said.

Now the district has only one question to answer: Why can’t we do this again?

Until the COVID-19 pandemic, graduation for Spokane’s five comprehensive high schools was as traditional as it gets.

Held at the Spokane Arena, the events included the entry of hundreds of graduates, speeches and the walks to the lectern – while loved ones sat far away and wondered why their iPhones didn’t come with a telephoto lens.

“I think reinventing the graduation ceremony lies before us in the future,” said Julie Lee, the principal at Shadle Park High School. “It’s not very often that a family has an opportunity to love up their senior like that.”

Lee also noticed that despite the close quarters, she saw less apprehension in the faces of graduates than at the Arena.

“I loved seeing their faces and their body language, that, ‘You’re going to be just fine,’” Lee said. “All of our grads were very relaxed.”

They were also appreciative.

“I was humbled by the fact that all of them thanked us,” Ferris Principal Ken Schutz said. “And this comes from the voices of kids who have lost so much.

“They could have been frustrated and angry, but I’ve had the most positive remarks of any event I’ve ever done.”

An indoor ceremony offers one certainty: shelter.

During the runup to graduation weekend, district officials fretted over a weather forecast that included possible thunderstorms.

In that event, the ceremonies would have been suspended, leaving preparations a bit “fragile,” said Shawn Jordan, the district’s director of secondary schools and the point man for graduation planning.

As it turned out, Saturday’s grads enjoyed perfect weather at Rogers, NC and Ferris.

The next day, Lee found herself shivering in the wind while passing out diploma covers.

“I didn’t have a jacket, so I grabbed a graduation gown – I looked just like the kids,” she said.

Fortunately, Shadle wrapped up its event just a few minutes before raindrops fell.

Meanwhile, rain clouds were gathering above LC’s event, originally scheduled from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Hart Field.

As the Tigers’ parade moved ahead of schedule, staff called the families at the end of the alphabet to come early.

That worked out well, as LC wrapped up well before the scheduled finish time.

Even better, the district saved some money – about $75,000 over what it would have paid the Arena and the INB Performing Arts Center, where the On Track Academy usually holds graduation ceremonies.

The district already had been re-examining its commitment to the Arena when the pandemic struck. This year’s success may hasten that discussion.

“There have been some conversations about that even before COVID,” Jordan said. “The future in the Arena is a question mark for our leadership.”

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