(Video courtesy of Reel Affair Productions)
June 4, 2020. That day will go down as one of the most special for Samantha Navarro, principal of the New Millennium Secondary School in Gardena, Calif.
A traditional graduation ceremony upended by the coronavirus pandemic. Three alternative ideas shot down. And then a plan that gelled.
She would visit each student individually, in a parade of sorts, with a line of cars, a DJ, countless decorations, and give them a personal commencement ceremony.
Navarro opened it up to teachers, to staff, to anyone who wanted to join. They ended up with eight cars, their supporters as varied as the school’s security guard and Navarro’s own mother, who helps out on campus.
The 200-student charter school had 44 graduates in the class of 2020. “Small but mighty,” is how Navarro describes both the school community and its seniors.
As part of Los Angeles Unified, New Millennium followed the district into distance learning in mid-March. As Navarro watched the events that would typically celebrate the senior class – beach week, prom, movie night – get cancelled, she started worrying about graduation and working with New Millennium’s counselor, Breyshere Sampson, on plan B.
After their first three ideas were scrapped by outside forces, they pivoted, taking advantage of their school’s small size to plan personal ceremonies.
They decided to visit each student individually at their homes, spread across the greater Los Angeles area.
From Long Beach to Compton, Torrance to Inglewood, they mapped out a route that would hit 43 houses over the course of an afternoon (their 44thsenior was working on graduation day, so they paid her a visited later on).
Their original vision had them starting at 11:30 a.m. on June 4 – their original graduation day – and wrapping up by 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. at the latest.
Using Instagram Live, they communicated with students and families in the days leading up to the event to prepare them for what was to come.
“Our seniors weren’t quite sure,” said Navarro, when she told them they needed to be outside, in their cap, gown and a mask, ready to go for their 10-minute window.
The day started with the eight cars meeting to be decorated, a quick detour to Home Depot when the car decorations showed early signs of wobbling on the breezy day, and then they were on the road, at their first house in Torrance by noon.
“We rolled up and the first kid, you just see your student in cap and gown, I lost it, I started to cry,” Navarro said, realizing “we’re doing this, we’re really doing this.”
As Sampson broadcast each student’s name over a bullhorn – just as she normally would across the graduation stage – Navarro made sure to go through the full ceremony with each graduate, flipping their tassel and handing them their diploma.
They used blue smoke, in celebration of the school’s colors, and presented a lei to each student. Neighbors came out to celebrate when they heard the honking horns as the parade rolled up. And the DJ had the music “bumping,” playing Pomp and Circumstance when they arrived and departing to Post Malone’s Celebration.
The key to executing their plan was communication. The school’s administrative assistant, Alexandra Carrethers, played the role of control center, working from home to track their route and contact students along the way. The graduation team soon realized that the journey was going to take far longer than originally anticipated. By 5 pm, they’d hit about half of the houses.
But they carried on, calling and texting parents, apologizing for the delays, promising they would be there.
As they made it to their final house just after 9 p.m., the staff, teachers, and counselors were still just as excited as they had been at noon, Navarro said.
The full weight of the day didn’t fully hit until Navarro got home and was flooded with texts from happy students and appreciative parents, sending her their photos. She says she’d do it again in a heartbeat, “it was just so personal.”
As the pandemic’s uncertainty and its impact on school hangs over the fall, Navarro is considering taking a poll at the beginning of the year to see what students and parents want for their graduation. “It was so amazing that I would consider doing it again, only if the parents were like ‘yes, this is what we want.’”
To her, it was “proof that our whole staff would do anything for our kids.”
The video that captured the day was an unexpected surprise. The school had hired Reel Affair Productions to take photos of the graduates. Navarro didn’t realize they were capturing video as well.
“Those are our kids doing big things,” she said. “They make those caps and gowns look amazing.”
A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.