The question of whether adult diploma recipients should walk in a traditional graduation ceremony has divided students, staff members and parents in an emotional tug-of-war.
On Tuesday, school board members debated the merits of each side. By the end of the night, the Douglas County School District’s long-standing policy of separating the adult and traditional ceremonies stood unchanged, although board members are free to revisit the issue in the future.
“It all comes down to high standards for peak performance,” said board member Sharla Hales. “If we send any other message than you have to learn more and do more, then we’re going backwards. We need all the incentives we can get to do more and learn more.”
Trustee Cindy Trigg argued that any incentive created by the policy isn’t worth the “hurt, aggravation and humiliation” of those students excluded from the traditional ceremony.
“We don’t know what goes on in every household,” she said. “The incentive is to do your best, to participate. We should err on the side of inclusivity.”
In January, the district office surveyed hundreds of students, parents, and staff members regarding the controversial issue. According to that survey, 272 students believe that all diplomas should be awarded in a single ceremony versus 139 students against the measure. Fifty-nine staff members preferred combining the ceremonies versus 38 staff members against it. Parents had a different response, with 55 preferring a single ceremony, and 73 favoring the current structure.
Even though a majority expressed desire for a combined ceremony, an even greater majority believed the current separation serves as an incentive for students to pursue the standard diploma.
Approximately 325 students believed existing policy creates that incentive, compared to 86 students who disagreed with the premise. Sixty-two staff members also viewed the separate ceremony as an incentive, compared to 35 staff members who didn’t. Ninety-five parents agreed with the premise versus 33 who didn’t.
The written responses to the survey reflected the divisiveness of the issue.
“Treat everyone equal. That’s it,” read one anonymous response from a student.
“I think everyone should walk across that stage,” wrote another student. “All together, we are all humans, and we all learn at different speeds. We should all walk across that stage together as a class. We shouldn’t have two ceremonies. We shouldn’t separate people.”
Some went as far to classify the policy as “discrimination.”
“All the students work hard to get their diplomas,” wrote an unidentified staff member. “I think it’s a form of discrimination if we allow some students to walk across the stage getting recognition, while others get their diplomas out of the spotlight. I’ve been to the adult diploma ceremonies, and it’s often students who have overcome huge issues receiving their diplomas. They should receive the same recognition as all other graduates.”
Other contributors rejected that argument:
“I don’t think that it’s fair for people who graduate and get a standard diploma or better to have to walk with someone who didn’t work to achieve that goal,” read a student’s comment. “They should remain separate because I worked hard and did my job as a student to graduate with the standard diploma, and that’s not fair to have to walk with someone with an adult’s diploma.”
“The students who take the long road to graduation deserve their own day,” wrote a staff member. “The students who opt for the short road likely care as much about the graduation ceremony as they do their education. I don’t think they would lose any sleep over not walking with the standard diploma students.”
“Those students who put in the extensive work deserve the recognition in the traditional ceremony,” read a parent’s comment. “Set the bar high, and the students will rise to achieve. Lower the bar, and the standards, and you send a message that we’ve lowered the value of the high school diploma. We talk the talk, then we must walk the walk. Consistency is critical.”
There was some confusion in the survey regarding adult diplomas. Some parents assumed it meant that middle-aged adults would be walking with teenagers. The majority of adult diploma recipients, however, are teenagers who lack adequate credits for the standard diploma.
According to current policy, adopted from state requirements, the adult education diploma requires 20.5 credits and completion of High School Proficiency Exams. In comparison, a standard high school diploma requires 23 credits and necessary exams and competencies. An advanced diploma requires 24 credits with at least a 3.25 grade point average. An honors diploma requires the same number of credits but with at least a 3.6 GPA as well as a “B” or higher in at least 10 semesters of honors or Advancement Placement courses.
Honors graduates wear special cords on their robes during the traditional ceremony and receive special seals on their diplomas.
Adjusted diplomas are awarded to special education students who have met the requirements of their individual education plans. Adjusted diploma recipients are allowed to walk in the traditional ceremony.
Per district policy, not state law, adult diploma recipients have a separate ceremony, typically held in the afternoon before the traditional ceremony. GED recipients are not allowed to participate in either.
Assistant Superintendent Lyn Gorrindo reported that 11 out of 14 districts statewide separate the adult diploma ceremony as Douglas County does. Only Carson City, Nye and Storey counties don’t follow the same practice.
At Douglas High in 2012, there were 27 adult diplomas issued, 231 standard diplomas, 94 advanced, and 48 honors diplomas. At DHS in 2011, there were 19 adult diplomas, 289 standard, 99 advanced and 56 honors diplomas issued.
Gorrindo said adult diploma issuances have increased over the years due to ASPIRE, the alternative education program that has helped turn around credit-deficient students. She said the adult diploma avenue has prevented some students from dropping out altogether.
Trigg argued that the traditional ceremony should recognize all state-sanctioned diplomas the district offers.
“If that’s what we have and that’s what they earn, they should all be together,” she said.
Superintendent Lisa Noonan admitted the issue was pulling her heart in two different directions. While sympathetic to the idea of inclusivity, she said she grows concerned when talking to university leaders, business owners, “the world beyond the high school gates.”
“At the end of the day, I feel like the mean parent. I could make (a student) really happy for one evening, but it would mean lowering the bar, knowing everything out there is becoming more difficult,” she said. “I can’t sit here and tell you it’s a good idea to go backwards.”
In the written section of the survey, one student offered a third option:
“I think it’s important to honor these people in the same way. Although I believe this, I think they should be differentiated in the ceremony by maybe wearing different colored robes, or a sash or something that tells everyone else that they had an adult diploma.”