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Taylorville Senior Fights The State For A Meaningful Graduation

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Molly Smith wrote the Governor to ease graduation rules during the COVID-19 outbreak.

School districts across the state have been resourceful in coming up with ways to honor their high school graduates, as health regulations prohibit the typical ceremonies.  But some of those plans ran into roadblocks with the governor’s office and the Illinois State Board of Education. 

After pushback, the state relented a bit, and allowed some of those ideas to move forward.   In central Illinois, a graduating senior helped bring about that change.    

This month, Taylorville High School in Christian County will graduate 180 seniors.  Principal Matthew Hutchison says the school will celebrate in what is called a drive-thru ceremony.

“We want to combine all the elements of a commencement ceremony, so we’re going have a stage out there. We are going to have students that are going to be able to drive into our front circle drive. We have a beautiful high school we want to showcase so that seniors last school year memory is of receiving their diploma in front of Taylorville High School.”

They must do it with social distancing.

“We will have one car at a time. We’ll have one senior. The senior and their family can be in the car. The senior will get out of the car in their cap and gown. I will call their name as I always do for graduates. They will walk across the stage. We will have their diploma presented by the board president who will have put it on a lectern where that senior can pick up their diploma and get a professional picture taken. And then they will walk off the stage and turn their tassel,” Hutchison excitedly describes.

They had this as their Plan A.  The State Board of Education stepped in and said no.  So, Taylorville was moving to plan B, which included mini-ceremonies on graduates’ porches.

But a graduating Taylorville senior did not like the news of the change.  She heard the state had said no on Friday morning.  By Friday night, Molly Smith jumped into action. She wrote a letter to Governor J.B. Pritzker.

“My letter said that our graduation ceremony that we had planned was very safe. And I highlighted how hard the administration had worked on composing the ceremony.  I said that while I mean no disrespect to the state, I just want them to understand how it is from a student’s point of view,” Smith said.

“Throughout four years of high school, they teach you to become an individual, they teach you not to rely on anybody else. And more than anything, they teach you to speak up for what you believe in. So, I said that it would be a disservice, not only to the class of 2020, but to those who have worked to educate us if we allow this to happen,” Smith added.

There were other school districts grumbling as well. After all, pandemic or not, the graduation ceremony is a rite of passage.

On the May 1, the state came out with a list of recommendations for safe graduation events. On that list, “the drive thru graduation”

Some of the popular signs at A & B printing in Springfield. Bill Wheelhouse/NPR Illinois

“I am just very grateful that they heard the Class of 2020 and that they listen to what we had to say. And I am more excited than ever for our drive-thru graduation ceremony,” Smith added.

After the Taylorville ceremony, Molly and the other  graduates will take part in a parade of cars.

Graduation will look different across the state.  In Jacksonville, the superintendent expressed frustration with the original restrictions.  The school will now allow seniors to enter individually, with a small number of family members.  They will walk across a stage, get their diplomas from a table and leave.  

In the small southern Illinois school district of Carrier Mills-Stonefort,  the principal and superintendent are the same person.  He is Bryce Jerrell. He has been placing personalized signs in each of the 32 graduates’ yards in recent days.

Jerrell said his seniors will be treated to a car parade “and our local radio station is going to announce each senior that goes through, along with their accomplishments and their scholarships.”

They will also receive a dinner and, in continuing with a tradition at the school, the graduates will also receive letters they wrote in eighth grade to their future selves.

Three middle schools in Will County will also have a drive-thru graduation at the expansive Chicagoland Speedway. Each eighth grader will be spotlighted in the track’s winner’s circle.

Bill Wheelhouse is a reporter with NPR Illinois in Springfield.

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