Every graduation ceremony is memorable for students, parents and principals, but the experience for the class of 2020 has been singular.

South-Western City Schools held a drive-thru ceremony at each of the district's four high schools May 23 complemented by virtual ceremonies uploaded to each building's YouTube channel for viewing May 30 during the school's scheduled graduation time.

South-Western's graduation ceremonies originally were scheduled to be held throughout the day May 30 at the Celeste Center at the Ohio Expo Center.

Although the graduation ceremonies turned out much different from what had been expected, principals and students said that wasn't a bad thing.

On May 23, students at each school arrived alphabetically at a designated time, accompanied by up to four people in a car.

The drive-thru ceremony allowed students to hear their name read, walk across a raised platform, receive their diploma covers and have their photograph and video taken by one family member who was allowed to exit the vehicle.

Each student's moment on stage was compiled into the virtual ceremony, which included music and speakers, just like the traditional ceremony.

"The one big difference -- and I think it was actually positive -- was the amount of time we could devote to each student individually," Grove City High School principal Bryan O'Shea said.

"Usually, during a graduation ceremony, each student is walking across the stage one after another, so it almost becomes a blur," he said. "This time, I had the chance to greet each student individually and they had the chance to have their own moment on stage.

"This was a more intimate setting," O'Shea said.

A parent of one student who wanted to take a picture had a camera problem and missed the initial moment, he said.

Instead of a missed opportunity, O'Shea said, there was time to have the student stay on stage and give the parent another opportunity to take the picture.

Grove City has 456 students in the senior class, and about 90% were able to attend the May 23 event, he said.

"It's a special class," O'Shea said. "It's amazing all they've had to go through. Most of them were born soon after the Sept. 11 (2001) attacks and to think how their time in high school ended with COVID-19, they've been an incredibly adaptive group."

"I've been a high school principal for 12 years, and every graduation is special, but this one seemed maybe even more special because of the unique circumstances," Westland High School principal James Miller said.

"It wasn't the way any of us probably would have wanted to do it, but then it was so nice that each student got to have maybe a full minute on the stage," he said.

That allowed the once-in-a-lifetime experience of high school graduation to truly be an individual honor, Miller said.

"The family members were able to be much closer to the stage and get a better picture than they could when we're holding the event at the Celeste Center," he said.

About 85% of the 420 members of Westland's senior class attended the May 23 drive-thru ceremony, Miller said.

The drive-thru ceremony gave students an opportunity to experience the sense of accomplishment and closure that walking across the stage provides, Central Crossing High School principal Jill Burke said.

"It was important that our seniors have that experience," she said.

"But I feel for them about all of the other graduation experiences they aren't going to be able to have," Burke said. "The junior-senior prom, the senior breakfast, all of those traditional events. Those are important milestones, too."

Burke spent the entire day May 23 stationed at the point where cars split toward one of the two tents set up at Central Crossing, where stages were set up.

"The thing that I and the other administrators at our school talked about was how nice it was to be able to greet and see the individual families," she said. "Usually, when we're at the Celeste Center, you don't have that chance because there's another ceremony that's coming up.

"It was nice to be able to have the drive-thru ceremony held at each individual school," Burke said.

She said 334 seniors out of about 386 were able to attend the drive-thru ceremony.

Central Crossing senior Emma Thompson said although she was disappointed she couldn't participate in a graduation ceremony with all of her classmates, the opportunity to share it with her family was special.

"I'm the oldest (child) in my family so I'm the first to graduate, so I really loved being able to have my family with me in the car," she said. "It worked perfectly for us because you were limited to four people and I have two siblings."

The individual experience on stage might have been more meaningful than a traditional ceremony would have been, Thompson said.

"It was nice to have a minute or two on the stage when they called your name, instead of being just in a long line and maybe having 10 seconds and you're off," she said.

Thompson plans to attend Wilmington College and major in exercise science.

"I'm stressed out a little bit because I don't want to have to start my college career with online learning," she said. "I want to take that next step in my life full out."

Westland senior Gregory Paskvan said he enjoyed the drive-thru ceremony.

"It was nice to have this experience. I appreciate that our school did whatever they could do to give us a ceremony," he said. "When you have a class of more than 400 students, it's really hard to plan something that keeps everybody safe."

The collective nature of the traditional graduation ceremony was lost, Paskvan said, but he's not sure whether attending a ceremony together as a class would have had more meaning than the drive-thru and virtual ceremonies.

"South-Western doesn't allow everyone to throw their caps in the air and since we would line up alphabetically anyway, it's not likely you're going to be standing with your closest friends," he said.

It was meaningful to be able to be with his family during the ceremony, he said.

Paskvan will attend Capital University and study music education.

Westland senior Kalisea Prak said she appreciated the effort that went into organizing the ceremony.

"This was the best that could have been done under the circumstances," she said. "It was nice to be able to walk across the stage. You look forward to that moment all the way through high school."

The way their senior year ended, with remote learning, makes the class of 2020 distinctive, Prak said.

Despite ending the year distance, "in some ways, it's united us more as a class," she said.

"My friends and I, we've taken a hit because of some of the traditions we didn't get to experience, like the senior skip day and senior breakfast," Prak said.

But that made the drive-thru and virtual ceremonies more special, she said.

"Right now, it still doesn't seem real that I'm actually graduating," Prak said. "It probably won't really sink in until I start college."

Prak will attend Ohio State University.

It's not just South-Western seniors who are starting a new chapter in their lives.

Burke is retiring after serving the past 10 years as Central Crossing principal and 33 of her 37 years in education working in South-Western schools.

"It's been such a joy," she said of her career.

"What's made it so special has been all the students through the years," Burke said. "The success of the students and the growth of my staff has been the reward."

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