DeKalb County’s McNair High School 2013 seniors graduate at the Georgia World Congress Center. Parents complained in the fall that holding graduation ceremonies the week after students finished classes would likely deplete attendance. So far, the Georgia World Congress Center auditorium has been full for each ceremony. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Skip graduation? Threat by DeKalb families was much ado about nothing

Maybe time truly does heal all wounds.

In October, parents were reeling from the news that DeKalb County School District officials were unable to secure the Georgia World Congress Center for the last week of school, and opted to hold graduation ceremonies a week after school ended.

At the time, many complained that ceremonies would conflict with other standing commitments, from vacations to summer jobs set to begin the week after school ended.

Tuesday afternoon, Cedar Grove High School students graduated in front of a raucous crowd who whistled, screamed and, in the case of one family, shook cow bells.

“It’s my niece,” Charlotte Mudakha said Tuesday while seated near the back of the auditorium. “As long as they were graduating, I was going to be here.”

Gia Barnwell said she came Tuesday to support her cousin, Toni Ellison. Ellison’s brother passed recently, and the family was using the graduation to shift from grieving to celebrating life.

“We want to give her as much support as possible,” she said about her cousin.

The school district began exclusively contracting with the Georgia World Congress Center for its graduations in 2017 after a challenge during the 2015-2016 school year from Americans United for Separation of Church and State on using religious facilities, as had been a past practice.

The churches often were local to the schools, allowing for graduation ceremonies to take place in the community. Contracting with the Georgia World Congress Center turned the ceremonies into pricey spectacles leaving many struggling to hear a loved one’s name called over an audio system competing with echoes within the auditorium’s cavernous space.

For 2019’s graduation season, the school districts were beat out by several conventions, including the Citrix Synergy 2019 technology event and MomoCon, a popular comics, video game and anime gathering.

Early into the 2018-2019 school year, parents began asking after no information was supplied by the district. Graduation dates are usually given to students and parents at the beginning of the school year. Rumors that DeKalb was not holding graduations on time began spreading after the Atlanta Public Schools board discussed graduation alternatives during its October board meeting. The district eventually held its graduations at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion, during the last week of school.

Vasanne Tinsley, the district’s deputy superintendent for student support and intervention, said in October that district officials exhausted every option before finally contracting to hold graduations the week after school ends.

“We, unfortunately, do not have a large venue that sits in DeKalb proper,” she said then. “Many other venues were booked because other districts got to them. We even looked at large warehouse spaces to see if there was something we could transform into a graduation venue. None of that panned out.”

There’s no word about whether DeKalb will continue to hold its graduation ceremonies after school ends. District officials did not respond this week to questions about whether a 2020 graduation contract had been signed, though none existed in March.

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