Behind the Story of CMSD’s John Marshall Drive-Through Graduation Solution (full mini-documentary)

by The West Park Times & Neighborhood Media Foundation

It is difficult to find an aspect of life that has not changed in the face of the current COVID-19 outbreak.  For that reason, it could have been easy to overlook the one small step Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s (CMSD) John Marshall IT High School graduates took in June—to them, it’s a giant leap for mankind.  After digging deeper, we found it was a giant leap for both CMSD and Toledo Public Schools (TPS), too.

This summer, The West Park Times published a three-part series (funded by the new local media collaborative, “NEO SOJO”) on graduation innovations from Cleveland high schools.

But in an interview with CMSD CEO Eric Gordon just before the graduation ceremony for John Marshall IT, he spoke to the seriousness with which his team took COVID-19 containment planning for Cleveland’s students and their families.

“Look, we have a responsibility to protect our community.  We are 86% people of color,” Gordon said.  “COVID-19 has afflicted communities of color at four times the rate of the white community.  Our people are essential workers, so they’re exposed to COVID-19, and the health disparities continue to persist in this city and this country make my population vulnerable.  I had to take a strong stance for safety, and yet kids and families want to celebrate.”

Gordon had been studying a promising solution of a drive-through graduation ceremony being tested in Toledo.

“We were well under the way of doing this even as we started learning from others,” Gordon explained, “but we did consult in particular with Toledo Public [Schools] which is also a large urban [school system] who had a very similar strategy—not as much of the digital content; we really wanted this professional video content—but the ceremony.”

Gordon said his team considered many scenarios: “Well, do we have them all get out and turn their tassels together and then get in and parade? Do they get a picture before it starts and then parade?”  The result was a truly unique ceremony for 2020 CMSD graduates—partly in the physical world; mostly in the digital world.

But when it came to the graduate being handed their diplomas, Gordon put the successful solution from Toledo into action that he’d watched TPS plan, execute, and evaluate.

“Toledo had a very similar experience [scheduled about two weeks prior to the John Marshall graduation ceremony],” Gordon said.  “My team consulted with them, learned from them, and, actually, this is how we figured out the right way to have the kids get out of the car for the photo that matters so much.”

In a virtual interview, Patty Mazur, TPS Senior Director of Communications, said, “Another member of Dr. Durant’s cabinet who was the real manager of this event—she did speak with someone from Cleveland about what our plans were…Eric is a former TPS principal, and he and Dr. Durant are very good friends—so there’s another connection.”  She added, “See how superintendents talk?”

Mazur detailed some of the precautions TPS took with their graduation ceremonies and the lessons Gordon’s team gleaned from their graduation experiment: “From the very beginning, we made it very clear that it was only the graduate who was going to get out of the car; we had specific areas marked off where the student could get out of the car; we had volunteers and staff working all week that week, and they would stand there with the student and explain what they needed to do; then, when one student would move forward, we moved the next student up—and that’s just how the cars moved up; they stayed right with their students.”

Ciaunni, a John Marshall IT graduating student, commented, “I think it’s quite incredible because no other graduation class will experience a drive-through graduation like we have, so I think it’s very unique.  We get to graduate; we get our diploma; and live life.”

Gordon concluded, “Kids and families will make some of their own decisions—they can be as safe as they feel they need to—but we will keep the process safe for everyone.”

Leave a Reply