Olentangy Schools’ return to traditional high school graduation ceremonies this year still will come with something new.
After two years of drive-thru ceremonies, necessitated by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the district’s more than 1,700 seniors again will walk the stage at the Schottenstein Center, 555 Borror Drive in Columbus.
2022, however, will mark the first time Olentangy will graduate seniors from four high schools on the same day and in the same venue.
In 2019, the new Olentangy Berlin High School had no graduating seniors. In 2020 and 2021, all seniors had drive-thru ceremonies.
“Timing is going to be very tight,” Superintendent Mark Raiff said of the back-to-back-to-back-to-back ceremonies slated May 22.
Even so, he said, the overwhelming response to principals’ surveys of seniors and the district’s surveys of families of 2020 and 2021 graduates indicated a preferred return to traditional ceremonies.
The district made efforts to create meaningful commencement experiences in 2020 and 2021. Each graduate could bring a carload of family and/or friends to schools in a parade-like drive-thru commencement, in which they were greeted by teachers and staff.
Those efforts received a positive response, Olentangy Schools chief communications officer Krista Davis told ThisWeek.
“We’re proud of what we developed, but the feedback was to go with a traditional ceremony at a place like the (Schottenstein Center this year),” Raiff said.
“It was just sort of everybody’s assumption,” Olentangy Orange High School principal Trond Smith told ThisWeek. “People enjoyed what we did the last couple years. After they went through it, I think they were appreciative. But when a full class is together, that’s meaningful. I know I enjoy having all of our families together.”
Some Olentangy families not only assumed that graduation would return to the more conventional format; they also prefer it.
“I think it's great to be back to normal. In-person graduation is what makes this special. It will be awesome, I hope,” Orange High School senior Parth Patel said. “A few of my friends who have graduated said the graduation drive-thru was a little bit underwhelming. I'm happy we're back to normal."
Jodi VanGorder, whose daughter Rory will be the third of her children to graduate from Olentangy High School this year, agreed.
“(Drive-thru graduation) would have been fine if we had to, but Rory’s thrilled to have the regular ceremony,” said VanGorder, whose other children graduated prior to the pandemic. “I do know parents who were saddened by the loss of that ceremony. It’s such a significant event.”
“My youngest daughter wants that full experience of being in the (Schottenstein Center),” said Claudia Snopik, whose senior daughter, Danielle, also will be her third OHS graduate. “We did talk about it, the 'what if.' We don’t know any different because all our kids have graduated in person. (Danielle) had multiple friends do that alternate graduation the past couple years, and some didn’t like it, but some had great things to say. We do like being able to have more families witness the event.”
"I think it's good for a lot of people because they can invite their entire family this time,” Berlin High School senior Deanara Mbouge said. “Anyone who wants to come out and support them can do that now."
Sharon Woods, whose daughter Jessica will graduate this year from Orange High School, experienced the drive-thru ceremony in 2020, when her son Ryan graduated.
“Our hope was that they would keep it like last year,” Woods said. “In 2020, it was a pleasant surprise. We were really upset about it at first, but once we went through it, it was amazing. Ryan said it was a lot better than he expected.”
Woods acknowledged not being able to gather in one large group had its drawbacks, but the district leadership worked to create a memorable experience.
“(The district) created so much hype, really made it a special experience, with so much excitement and yet so personal,” she said. “I can’t say what’s better because we haven’t ever experienced graduation at the (Schottenstein Center). I’m sure the atmosphere will still feel special. We figure it could be a situation like (2020) when we were disappointed but afterwards we were very happy.”
Olentangy High School senior Liza Bell was a bit more pragmatic.
“For me, I’d rather do the COVID (ceremony). Instead of a long, three-hour ceremony, just get my diploma and go,” she said.
Raiff also noted practical considerations with regard to the graduation decision.
“The biggest upside (with traditional graduation in the Schottenstein Center) is that it’s not weather-dependent,” he said. “We got extremely lucky these past two years.”
Whether in person or drive-thru, it’s among the privileges of his position to be able to be a part of such an important event in students’ lives, Raiff said.
“It’s the culmination of 13 years of hard work put in by the student and family,” he said. “It’s one of the best things I get to experience. This is my seventh graduation, so there are almost 12,000 kids who have my name on their diploma. When I think about it, I’m happy to have my name behind the quality of the education they received.”
“As a principal, it’s such a privilege to get to look out at the students in their robes,” Smith said. “It’s really special.”
The May 22 graduation times are:
• Berlin High School: 9 a.m.
• Olentangy High School: noon
• Olentangy Liberty High School: 3 p.m.
• Olentangy Orange High School: 6 p.m.
The district website states, "All families should read the Family Guide to Graduation at the Schottenstein Center for important information regarding facility entrance, security, and bag policy at the event."
ThisWeek reporters Scott Hennen and Michael Rich contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared on ThisWeek: Olentangy Schools: All 4 high school graduations set May 22 at Schott