What Goes into Planning East Lansing High School's Graduation?
This year’s East Lansing High School Commencement will be held on May 31 at the MSU Auditorium, but will be marked by changes from past years including occurring on a weekday (Friday) and taking place at 7pm.
The commencement ceremony has evolved over the years, beginning with outdoor commencements on Jeff Smith Field at Lynn C. Adams Stadium, followed by a shift to an indoor event at Michigan State’s Wharton Center, and most recently a move to the MSU Auditorium.
East Lansing High School (ELHS) Science teacher Heather Mueller and District Media Specialist Kathy Kowalski have helped to organize graduation since the late 1990s.
“I’ve helped with graduation every year since 1996 here at East Lansing because it’s too much for one person to do,” Kowalski said. Mueller adds that she “started in 1998 and we teamed up and we have been teammates ever since.”
The last graduation to take place at Adams Stadium (above) was in 2002. The ceremony was moved to MSU's Wharton Center in 2003. The main reason for that change was the unpredictability of the weather.
Organizers had also observed that holding graduation in an outdoor football stadium resulted in people coming to the event dressed casually, reducing the formality of the ceremony.
“When you have graduation on your football field people come and it’s a more informal kind of celebration. We wanted it to be a more formal celebration not having to worry about the weather, so we moved to the Wharton Center,” Kowalski explained.
While using the Wharton Center for commencement addressed the issues of weather and an appropriate level of formality, a new issue arose because there was now a limit on the number of tickets that students could receive for friends and family.
“Availability comes down to whether they have shows at the Wharton Center,” Kowalski said. “What that also entailed was us having to limit the number of tickets per graduate because the Wharton Center only holds a certain amount, so every graduate only got seven tickets and students had to barter with other people who weren’t using their tickets or ask the main office to get some if there were even some available. And that became this big production in and of itself, so then we said how about we try to avoid that.”
Aside from the issue of limiting tickets for students, booking the Wharton Center presented additional problems.
“Wharton Center is contingent on whether or not they have a Broadway production - in 2010 they were holding a large show, “The Lion King” and “Kinky Boots,” so we didn’t have the opportunity to rent their space,” Mueller said. “But since the MSU Auditorium is affiliated with the Wharton Center they gave us an opportunity to then work at the Auditorium.”
For reasons of scheduling and unlimited tickets, the MSU Auditorium (above) became the new location for ELHS graduation.
While securing the venue is important, scheduling and coordinating graduation requires tedious dedication all year. “Planning graduation for 2019 starts at the end of 2018 school year,” Mueller said.
Mueller and Kowalski play a key role but the ultimate decisions are made by the building and district administration. This includes Principal Andy Wells, Assistant Principals Nick Hamilton and Matt Morales, and the Office Administrative Assistants.
Once a location is chosen the next issues are the day and time. A major consideration is what Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) events might conflict.
Mueller explained that these events may include the state track finals, girls soccer finals, and lacrosse finals. “Even though our school may not qualify for the state event, we can’t really book a date where there’s an MHSAA activity if it limits our students from participating in graduation.”
Other considerations in choosing a date and time for graduation may include working around Memorial Day weekend in a way that allows families to travel, and the schedules of other area high schools.
ELHS staff must also do some planning with the graduates themselves.
“We first meet with each student’s counselor to review if the student has enough credits to graduate,” said administrative assistant Nikie Tabor. “Then we look at all senior CA-60 files which encompasses official government names, pictures, and academic records from kindergarten to their senior year. Each student then has to verify parts of their documents like their official name being spelled correctly. We also ask the student what teacher they would like to have present their diploma on graduation day. Then we order the diploma.”
Students and families prepare by ordering the traditional graduation garb. “Seniors will pay a combined $75,000 for caps and gowns and the school pays $8,000 or more for the rental of the MSU Auditorium and the ordering of 2,500 programs,” Tabor said. Seniors pay about $60 each for cap and gown, so depending on the size of the graduating class, this total number will differ.