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Toning down 'graduation'

Middle schools stress that ceremonies mark a transition to more education, not an end.

June 20, 2008|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

Commencement at this Santa Ana school was a serious ordeal. Boys had to wear ties. Girls' dresses required shoulder straps at least 2 inches wide. Families brought balloons and flowers and decorated their cars with white shoe polish. Five rehearsals ensured flawless filing in and out of the auditorium by students in red gowns.

But if something did go awry, it was hardly the end of the world. After all, they were only leaving middle school.

At schools like Spurgeon Intermediate in a hardscrabble Santa Ana neighborhood, graduation is a time of pomp and ceremony. And, officials and parents concede, there is resignation to the fact that some will never make it through the 12th grade. Administrators have cautiously maintained the tradition, but only while also urging parents to be restrained and save the climactic celebrations for future graduations, like those in high school or even college.

Schools throughout the country in recent years have eliminated or scaled back eighth-grade graduations, concerned that over-the-top ceremonies too closely resemble high school graduations and imply finality rather than a mere transition to further education.

It is a serious concern in cities such as Los Angeles with dismal high school graduation rates. Although state dropout statistics are notoriously hard to pin down, more than one-third of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District -- about twice the state average -- will not make it through their senior year, and graduation rates at the lowest-performing schools hover near 40%. In the neighborhood where Spurgeon is located, nearly four out of 10 students do not complete 12th grade, state figures show.

The ceremonies take on a deeper significance and sometimes become a source of pride in cities with large Latino immigrant communities such as Anaheim, Santa Ana or Pomona, where many parents did not make it past eighth grade themselves.

In Santa Ana, officials have tried to temper the occasion by no longer referring to it as graduation. Instead, said Spurgeon Principal Robert Laxton, it is called "promotion," because "this isn't the end of the line; we are promoting them to high school."

That attitude is widespread.

In Long Beach, eighth-graders get decked out in their Sunday best but do not sport gowns at their "promotionals."

In San Bernardino, students attend a no-frills "promotion" with only a certificate and a few words from their principal.

"It's not a milestone, it's a benchmark," said district spokeswoman Maria Garcia

And starting with next year's sixth-grade class, L.A. Unified will rename middle school graduations "culmination activities," with exacting standards for who can participate, and will present "certificates of completion" instead of diplomas.

At Spurgeon's promotion ceremony in Santa Ana this week, families packed a stuffy high school auditorium snapping pictures and breaking into applause when their children's names were read as they walked across the stage. The band played "Pomp and Circumstance," the valedictorian spoke, and school administrators handed out gold-hued certificates and academic awards.

For some families, worries persist that it could be their youngsters' only graduation to mark.

Valerie Hopkins, 31, said part of what justified a five-hour drive to see her youngest sister graduate from Spurgeon was the lingering thought that it could be her only chance.

"We want to go through a ceremony because it makes us feel proud," she said, holding a small bouquet of flowers for her sister, Emily Rivera. "She wants to graduate high school and go to college, but that's still a long time, and you don't know what could happen in those years."

But officials were eager to qualify it as a non-graduation.

"You are really the class of 2012," school board member Rob Richardson told students.

"This is not a graduation," board member Audrey Yamagata-Noji said in Spanish.

The canopy of brightly colored foil balloons awaiting the now former eighth-graders outside, however, suggested otherwise. "Congratulations Grad," they read.

Years ago, Santa Ana school district officials had eighth-graders wear gowns at the ceremonies as a way to bring uniformity and tone down the pageantry that prevailed in the 1980s and '90s, said Yamagata-Noji.

"We had something that was supposed to be a few steps above a regular assembly, and you had girls in evening gowns and boys in tuxedos," she said. "It just became very competitive, ridiculous and out of proportion."

Parents also worry that too much showiness could send their children the wrong message.

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