NORTH PORT — Graduation is a rite of passage for seniors to celebrate their accomplishments, walk across the stage in front of their families, and accept their diploma from their principal.
Families expressed heartbreak after the district announced the in-person ceremonies for the Class of 2020, which had been rescheduled for July 16, would be canceled this year.
At Thursday’s special meeting of the Sarasota County School Board, interim superintendent Mitsi Corcoran choked back tears as she explained the difficulty of the decision.
“This was not an easy decision for anyone, it has actually been agonizing for us and every one of our principals, since graduation is a rite of passage, not only for our high school seniors, but our fifth- and eighth-graders as they transition to their new schools,” Corcoran said.
Corcoran added that the district has provided a yard sign for every graduate, created virtual graduation ceremonies, and provided opportunities for families to take photos in their cap and gowns inside their schools, including North Port High School.
Two members of the North Port community, Justin Cody Willis and Elaine Allen-Emrich, didn’t want to see the high school graduates miss out on another special event. They decided to plan an “alternate graduation” ceremony for North Port High’s graduates, and asked for support from the community. (Allen-Emrich is Englewood Community Editor for the Sun.)
They had a planning session over the holiday weekend at Olde World Restaurant in North Port to solidify the plan, which is a day of ceremonies on July 16 on the grass in front of North Port City Hall.
Neither Willis nor Emrich have children who are graduating this year.
“It’s about community,” Willis said, “These kids deserve to be honored, deserved to be recognized.”
The event is not affiliated with the school district or city. The plan is to hold six separate ceremonies throughout the day, in order to keep families spread out: 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m., and 7:30 p.m. Upon approval of necessary permits from the city of North Port, the ceremonies will be held in front of City Hall.
Each ceremony will be limited to 75 graduates, with a limit of two guests. All additional guests will be asked to remain in their car, but can listen to the ceremonies streamed live on WKDW radio.
Students are asked to RSVP by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Each attendee, graduate and guest will be provided with a mask. Willis said everyone is required to wear a mask, and there will be no exception to this rule.
Willis estimated the event will cost approximately $10,000, which includes purchasing masks, setting up barricades, police department, rentals for chairs, tents and the stage, and keepsake trinkets, along with programs.
The group sent out an invitation via emails and Facebook, asking Sarasota County School Board and North Port city officials to attend if they would like.
School Board member Eric Robinson, who is running for re-election, had announced he wanted to plan a ceremony for the grads last week. He supported the community effort. “If this is what the parents and students want, it’s not my place to answer that question. If they want some sort of closure, something to cap off their turbulent year, is it really a place for the School Board to say no?” Robinson said.
North Port Mayor Debbie McDowell said she thought the ceremony would conflict with the school’s own plan to recognize its seniors. “From the outside looking in, it appears this ‘mock graduation’ is trying to compete with the NPHS sanctioned event,” she wrote in an email.
THE SCHOOL’S PLAN
North Port High School is providing families a chance for a photo opportunity in the performing arts center from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. July 14-16. Students can get a photo holding their diploma and walking across the stage in their cap and gown. One family will be allowed in at a time.
Families can register for an appointment at nphsgraduationphoto.youcanbook.me/
For students who just wish to pick up their diplomas, they can do so beginning Monday, July 20 between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m.
“As a district we need to follow the guidelines that best keep our children safe. I would not be able to in good conscience say that we are not going to follow the guidance of our health department partners,” said Corcoran.
“If a student were to become ill, and they were not able to start college on time, report for military service, or start their new job, we would feel incredibly guilty, and we can’t place a single celebration, even one this important over the safety of our students,” she said.