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Thinking outside the box – and school – for virtual graduation: Edgecombe Early College High

When Matt Bristow-Smith, principal of Edgecombe Early College High School in Tarboro and 2019 North Carolina Principal of the Year, learned that the graduation ceremony the school has had for 15 years would not be possible because of COVID-19, he had some thinking to do.

Edgecombe Early College High School shares a campus with Edgecombe Community College and doesn’t have its own gym, track, or football field.

So, what does a principal do when there seems to be no safe location for one of the most important events in students’ lives? He thinks outside the box — and in this case, outside the school.

So there Bristow-Smith was with his staff on May 16, spread out in a business shopping center that includes a florist called All About Flowers and a wedding services company, Impulz Entertainment, in downtown Tarboro. Behind the building was a makeshift walk-through graduation area, complete with photo stations, a photo wall with remote-controlled sparklers, and personalized signs for each graduate.

“As we thought more about it, we thought, ‘We’re going to go outside the box, let’s just go all the way outside the box,'” he said. “We have all these stations or zones that are set up for no more than 10 people to be congregating at a time collectively, and (that) allows us to pull off this event.”

What goes into creating a socially distanced outdoor ceremony for each student?

Each family had a time slot 10 minutes after the one before it. Students were asked to include only six family members and to not leave their cars until their reserved time. Then, they entered the building to a professional photo studio setup where family and senior portraits were made. The photos will be gifted to each family.

Then, they exited through the back door and followed signs through three photo locations, where parents took photos of their grad, each with teachers nearby sharing warm wishes. A roaming photographer, Bill Good, was moving from station to station taking candid photos.

The last photo station brought them to a stage and podium, where Shawn Dawes, college liaison, called the scholars’ names, and they walked across the stage to meet Bristow-Smith, who handed them their diplomas.

As they exited, there was another photo opportunity, this time with remote-controlled sparklers that went off as each photo was being taken — a celebratory moment.

Lastly, each collected a yard sign with their name on it, a glass turtle keepsake — the school’s mascot — and a carnation to gift to their mom.

‘This feels even more special than any past graduation that I’ve seen.’

Mariana Gonzales is a first-generation college graduate, graduating with a high school diploma and an associate of sciences with a certification in information service technology and a certification in medical office administration. In the fall, she’s attending UNC Greensboro, where she will be majoring in finance.

“I had already had it in my head that I probably wouldn’t have one [a graduation ceremony], so hearing the news made me really happy,” she said. “This feels even more special than any past graduation that I’ve seen. They really tried to make us feel special today, despite all that is going on.”

Mariana Gonzalez, Edgecombe Early High School 2020 graduate

“I am who I am today because of my experiences there [Edgecombe Early College High School],” she said. “It’s meant everything to me.”

Emily Grimm is graduating with a high school diploma and as an associate of science. She’s also class valedictorian.

“When we heard it was virtual, it was pretty disappointing,” she said. “When they started telling us everything they were doing to make it happen — actually getting to walk, getting to see our teachers — it meant a whole lot, and we really warmed up to the idea.”

Emily Grimm, Edgecombe Early High School 2020 graduate

The event came together in less than 10 days, after Bristow-Smith was declined by the original desired location.

“Teamwork makes the dream work. And I have a wonderful staff, and they came together to create this plan,” Bristow-Smith said. “Our driving question for this whole event was: ‘How can we make commencement, the beginning of something wonderful, an event that affirms students’ achievements, but also celebrates their potential?’ That graduation stage is a bridge to what comes next. It connects yesterday, today, tomorrow.

“That graduation stage is a threshold that kids are crossing. And that’s why we call it a commencement: the beginning of something.”

Mary Willson

Mary Willson is the director of engagement at EducationNC.