Talk about original. Historic. Cool. And on time.
Flagler Palm Coast High School and Matanzas High School seniors–the Class of 2020, battered by three hurricanes and the coronavirus emergency–will have their graduation ceremonies after all, in person, on time, and in the most unique ways imaginable.
The school district, the Daytona International Speedway and NASCAR have worked out an arrangement that will have every graduate and his or her family drive in their own cars down the speedway’s stretch, crossing the Finish line and getting their diploma. The event will be restricted to one car per graduate, with the graduate’s family in that car, so additional visitors will not be permitted. And it’s still not clear whether the graduates will be able to step out of their vehicle or not: that’ll depend on the state of the emergency and its phases at the time, a fluid factor.
But the ceremony will be live on video via Facebook and the district’s platforms, so graduates’ family members who can;t be at the Speedway will be able to watch–as will graduates and their families themselves, in their cars.
The graduates’ names will be announced on the Speedway’s booming public address system, as if they were in a race, and school board members and the superintendent will be there, speaking, as will others–Sheriff Rick Staly, school resource deputies, some faculty members: many of those details are being worked out.
“We’re really excited,” Superintendent Jim Tager said this morning in an appearance with Student Board Member Hunter Perez on WNZF, where they announced the plans. Perez said “it truly was student-driven,” with Lynette Shott, the director of student and community engagement, who served on the committee, finding ways to translate students’ wishes into reality.
“We had a committee made up of students, school administrators, district staff, and a member of the School Board,” Superintendent Jim Tager said, referring to Colleen Conklin, who will be witnessing her 20th graduation in her school board tenure. “All of the members on this committee were determined to find a way for our graduates to have their ceremony as close to the original May 28th date as possible. Without the wonderful team at Daytona International Speedway, we probably would not have been able to do that.”
Students were leery of delaying the ceremony: many are going off to the military, many hope to join the workforce, many are having plans that may take them away from the region. There’d been discussions about delaying the event until homecoming or Christmas, and holding it at the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach, as with previous graduations.
But even then, “no one really knew whether or not the restrictions would be lifted,” Conklin said in an interview this morning. “So we’d find ourselves in the same position, and the class itself I think understands that they are special and unique given the circumstances of graduating under these conditions and loved the idea of being part of something that would be one of a kind. It probably will never happen again. Let’s hope and pray. But utilizing the Speedway, we’ll never have that opportunity again, and we’re just over the moon that the International Speedway stepped up reached out and offered their facility. It’s really quite amazing.”
The France family, which owns the Speedway, is offering the location at no charge to the district.
“The France family has been committed to supporting our local schools in any way they can,” Chip Wile, President of Daytona International Speedway, was quoted as saying in a district release issued this morning. “We are unique in that we can comfortably accommodate these schools and provide an unforgettable experience for these graduates. We are honored to host these graduates and their families for this special occasion.”
Some of the ideas the committee discussed included a parade type event around Town Center in Palm Coast, stopping by a certain place and picking up the diploma. Numerous local community groups and organizations offered help or facilities, among them the county airport, which proposed a drive-in event there. Municipal stadiums were studied as possible locations. Then the Speedway stepped up.
“We’ve got 30 days to iron this thing out,” district spokesman Jason Wheeler said, “so we’re on the clock.”
Flagler-Palm Coast High School’s Shelcey Garcia and Matanzas’ Perez were on the committee, along with two other students from each school. “Graduating at Daytona International Speedway is beyond anything I ever could have imagined when we started talking about alternate graduations,” Perez said. “No one else in the nation has ever done anything like this. I am very excited and thankful to Flagler Schools for putting students first and to Daytona International Speedway for making the facility available to us.” Garcia sees the experience as another challenge. “The best way to persevere is to show how you work through it, despite it being new and different,” she said. “It’s important to remember that there’s always positivity in tough times. The FPC Class of 2020 will be remembered as those who persevered and created hope out of a time where we felt hopeless. For our class to be able to go out on such a high note at such an amazing venue is so exciting.”
The class has been battered by school-closing emergencies going back to Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Hurricane Irma the following year, and Hurricane Dorian this fall, each time losing days and having to make-up days, though none of those emergencies come close to the school-ending calamity that’s been the Covid-19 emergency. Students went on spring break in March, only to be ordered to shelter at home for an additional week, then two more weeks, then hear that their in-person school year had been cancelled: the district shifted all instruction online.
There’d been discussions about having a virtual graduation ceremony. That’s happening across the country in colleges and high schools. But Flagler’s students were “virtualed out,” according to the committee.
“I recognized not everybody is going to be happy about it, but given the circumstances I think it’s a pretty cool idea,” Conklin said, “and definitely think that it will be a memorable one for everyone involved. And I hope it says to the Class of 2020: you are as unique and as special as this event we’re trying to put together for you.”