Meghann Spillane thinks graduation day is a “family thing,” and she’s always wanted to share that special moment with her parents. The eldest of three siblings, Spillane will be the first to graduate from Oak Park and River Forest High School, which makes the event even more memorable.
So, when Spillane heard OPRF planned on hosting two graduation ceremonies, she was elated. According to the school’s plans, the senior class – which is made up of 850 students – will be divided into two groups, giving the students the chance to bring along a couple guests to the ceremonies.
“It’s such a big life event,” Spillane, 18, said. “I couldn’t imagine my parents not being there.”
But not all of Spillane’s classmates felt the same way. Some students said they were upset that they wouldn’t be able to graduate beside their friends, significant others or the senior class as a whole, while others said the graduation plans were yet another example of school officials ignoring the student body.
Senior Elijah Evans said he and his peers were already robbed of another school year because of the coronavirus pandemic, and “a lot of me and my classmates really expected the school to step up and do something meaningful for graduation and prom and all that stuff.”
“They really haven’t made any effort throughout the entire year to make us feel special at all,” said Evans, who is also 18.
The school’s decision to organize a pair of outdoor graduations on May 29 (rain date May 30) was partly impacted by a recent survey that listed five possible ceremonies. OPRF could host one graduation only for the senior class or up to five ceremonies, which would allow students to bring guests, said Director of Student Activities Susan Johnson. She said other options included a drive-through or walk-up ceremony, or the school could skip the in-person festivity altogether.
All students and parents were surveyed on the subject. More than 500 parents and 550 students responded to the survey. Half of the 512 parents surveyed voted for the school to have multiple ceremonies. The largest block of students, about 47%, went with a single ceremony. Johnson said that’s when she looked more closely at the student vote, which was broken down further by race.
Johnson said she noticed more white students opted for one ceremony, and students of color were “near-even” in selecting either one or multiple ceremonies. Those results led Johnson to say that “yes, we have a number that stands out in the sense that our students did have the highest vote, but not all of them in each individual subcategory had that feeling. That’s when we looked at it and we said it was a tough decision.”
Johnson said that she often turned back to students for more feedback and worked with the Oak Park Department of Public Health to figure out the best solution. With state guidelines loosening up, Johnson said she and other OPRF school officials were able to provide a graduation that was safe for both families and students.
According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, outdoor venues like the school’s football stadium can hold up to 25% of their capacity, and people must be able to social distance. Johnson said the stadium can fit about 1,000 people and splitting up the graduating class left enough room for other guests while the graduates are seated on the field.
Instead of throwing five ceremonies, “we could come down to two ceremonies, and we would be really, really close to having everybody in one,” said Johnson. “We said that was a really big compromise between the two, and this way, we can allow our students to have a couple people to see them graduate and still be with a large amount of other students.”
Evans and senior Ella Sorensen don’t see it that way and remain disappointed. The 18-year-old Sorensen said she felt like her vote didn’t even matter and that the school decided to side with the parents.
“It just makes our voices feel invalidated because even though we voted for one ceremony they still went with what the parents wanted,” Sorensen said. “That just doesn’t feel good, especially going to college, you want to feel confident with having your voices heard.”