06/03/2020

Teachers put on a graduation extravaganza

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Ideas for an alternative high school commencement came from all sides in this time of coronavirus, and they came in thick and fast. In Pottstown, Pa., the class advisers, principal and union leaders created a plan to have graduates pick up their diplomas one by one in the high school auditorium over a six-day, slow-motion ceremony, all while practicing safe distancing. But the ideas didn’t stop there.

graduation student takes a selfie

Members of the Federation of Pottstown Teachers voted unanimously to buy a digital billboard ad congratulating all of their graduating seniors and to create yard signs featuring each graduate. All that and more is now happening at this small, resilient school district in southeastern Pennsylvania.

First up was the billboard featuring every senior, running from May 25 through June 24, says union President Beth Yoder, a high school art teacher who designed the billboard and yard signs.

Next, the teachers, counselors, school nurses and other union members placed each picture of a graduate on a seat in the auditorium, just as they would have sat, in alphabetical order, to “watch” as their classmates crossed the stage—graduates like Mariana Pearson, above, who snapped a selfie. Yoder saw to it that the class valedictorian “sat” in the center, with the salutatorian to the left and the class president to the right.

“We wanted to make sure the kids felt as if their class was there with them during their ceremony, even though they couldn’t be there due to the quarantine,” Yoder says. The yard signs will chill in their seats through June 3, until the last student graduates at 7 p.m.

The next day, teachers wearing union T-shirts will arrive at the high school, where they will stand next to each graduate’s sign and be videotaped congratulating that student individually. They will then place the sign in the ground along the main walkway to the front doors of the school.

empty auditorium

That evening, June 4, will feature a senior parade arranged by the parents, in which a car caravan will snake from the high school past each of Pottstown’s four elementary schools, the middle school, and then back to the high school, where families will see all the signs massed like a giant bouquet in front of the school. Finally, the signs will go home with the grads.

“We really want to make sure everybody sees how much our students mean to us,” Yoder says. “We want to make sure that our kids are celebrated.”

The preK-12 school district is like “a mini-Philadelphia,” as she describes it. With a diverse student population of about 3,000 students and 228 certified staff—all but one members of the union, and she was just hired—the community is close-knit. Before the pandemic, to keep their ties strong, teachers held restorative justice circles with students nearly every week and regularly made home visits.

“Most of the teachers are close, like family, with most of their students,” she says, “which is something you don’t see very often.”

Fund Our Future

Even before the pandemic came and robbed the community of lives and livelihoods, the school district was woefully underfunded. Long before revenues suddenly stopped flowing in for state and local public services, program cuts had always loomed as a threat. And because of a lack of fair funding between Pottstown and its wealthier neighbors, Pottstown kids already were lacking some of the tools and resources that students in surrounding districts take for granted.

That’s why Pottstown teachers virtually all belong to their union and virtually all fight to fund the futures of their students. It’s why now, despite a pandemic, their union is fighting for the HEROES Act to pass through Congress and become law—because these services matter.

“We are 100 percent free and reduced-price lunch, and this year was the first year that the high school kids got any type of technology,” Yoder says. “Because of their zip code, they have fewer experiences and opportunities than their peers. But they are amazing kids who are persistent and gritty. They never give up and we wanted to make sure that they know how much we love them.”

[Annette Licitra]