Students of Resilience: Seniors at diocesan high schools adapt to graduating during pandemic

by Susan Moses

North Texas Catholic

May 24, 2020

Sister Anna Imelda Nguyen congratulates a student as graduating seniors from Nolan High School parade through the school grounds to cheers of the faculty, families, and friends, while maintaining social distancing on May 22, 2020. (NTC/Rodger Mallison)Sister Anna Imelda Nguyen congratulates a student as graduating seniors from Nolan High School parade through the school grounds to cheers of the faculty, families, and friends, while maintaining social distancing on May 22, 2020. (NTC/Rodger Mallison)
Sister Anna Imelda Nguyen congratulates Senior Class President Elle Wagoner as graduating seniors from Nolan High School parade through the school grounds to cheers of the faculty, families, and friends, while maintaining social distancing on May 22, 2020. (NTC/Rodger Mallison) Check out the photo gallery of the Nolan senior graduation car parade.


FORT WORTH — On Friday evening, Elle Wagoner should have been donning her graduation robe, assisted by the teacher of her choice during the senior awards ceremony at Nolan Catholic High School. Instead, the senior class president was riding around the school’s campus in the passenger seat of the family car. And that was her idea. Well, sort of.

When classes were cancelled for the remainder of the school year, the traditional ways to celebrate graduation for seniors also evaporated. But for faculty and seniors alike, celebrating the students’ accomplishments and marking their transition into a new stage of life needed to be acknowledged.

Wagoner shared with school leadership an idea she found on TikTok: a senior car parade. Eager to help create special memories to conclude high school, the administration agreed.

On May 22, most of the 207 seniors at Nolan decorated their cars and drove through campus to the cheers of faculty and staff. Posters lined the drive, music blasted through speakers, and cowbells clanged their praise.

Wagoner described the parade excitedly as she rode around the main circle. “It’s so cool; I love it. It’s surreal to see how the parade came together. [Senior year] didn’t end the way we planned, but I’m super happy right now.” After the Nolan graduation, which has been postponed until late July or August, she will study at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

The graduation car parade was the first time the seniors had been on campus since March 6, and it may be the last time for the senior class of 2020.

Alicia Flores rides in the window of her car as graduating seniors from Nolan High School parade through the school grounds May 22, 2020. (NTC/Rodger Mallison)Alicia Flores rides in the window of her car as graduating seniors from Nolan High School parade through the school grounds May 22, 2020. (NTC/Rodger Mallison)
Alicia Flores rides in the window of her car as graduating seniors from Nolan High School parade through the school grounds May 22, 2020. (NTC/Rodger Mallison)


William Perales, principal of Nolan Catholic, watched the parade from behind an Americana cloth mask. Between congratulating students as they drove past, usually with their families, he explained, “It’s important that the seniors feel celebrated, feel recognized. The music, the cheering — it’s joyous. They deserve it.”
 

A Virtual Experience

On March 13, Governor Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster in Texas due to COVID-19. At the four Catholic high schools of the Diocese of Fort Worth, administrators, teachers, and students made a quick flip to distance learning. Soon, some of the community and social aspects of education were cancelled or had to move online also.

Nisa Lagle, principal of Sacred Heart Catholic School in Muenster, acknowledged the loss of senior year traditions such as prom, lockers decorated with each student’s college choice, and the senior walk in front of the rest of the student body. “You can’t put a price on lost memories,” she said.

However, the class of 21 seniors has risen to the occasion, she said, understanding “life can be what you make it, even when it’s not optimal.” As an example, she explained how three students individually recorded a musical Divine Mercy Chaplet, then the separate recordings were combined into a single track. Music made, even at a distance.

Attendance at Sacred Heart’s graduation Mass will be limited, and the rite of passage itself will take place in the school’s stadium to allow for social distancing.

Notre Dame Catholic School in Wichita Falls will also hold its graduation outside with restricted attendance. Livestreaming will allow the greater community of friends and family to celebrate with the graduates.

The loss of some senior activities and changes to the traditional graduation “doesn’t diminish their accomplishment,” said Lagle. “They will make their mark, guided by the Holy Spirit. They want to make a difference in the world around them.”
 

Lessons Learned

Brian Lott, principal of Cassata Catholic High School in Fort Worth, thinks the greatest loss for seniors is the simplest — the everyday interactions of friends in the school hallway. Zoom meetings have become a tool for social interaction as much as instruction.

The administrator believes that lessons learned from making the transition from high school to adult life during a pandemic can serve the seniors well in the future.

Students no longer have the structure of a school schedule, and communication has changed from conversations at the teacher’s desk to text messages and emails. “Students have improved in time management and become self-motivators,” observed Lott. He thinks those habits will translate into future success for the seniors, whether they pursue post-secondary education or enter the workforce or the military.

Brittney Ynfante teaches science and other subjects at the school, and she serves as sponsor to the student council. She thinks the economic fallout from the pandemic has prompted the seniors to evaluate their intended career path more seriously. According to Ynfante, students are asking which fields are essential, which jobs can’t be outsourced, and which professions are stable.

Graduation for the dozen or so seniors at the school, which features self-paced learning and an individualized curriculum, has been postponed until August. The delay doesn’t diminish the pride that the school’s leadership has in its students and their accomplishments. Lott, the principal, boasted, “We are so proud of them. They will all go on and continue to do good things.”

FORT WORTH — On Friday evening, Elle Wagoner should have been donning her graduation robe, assisted by the teacher of her choice during the senior awards ceremony at Nolan Catholic High School.

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