Every year, in most school districts, there is a day that is given over to celebrating learning and academic achievement with an age-old rite of passage.

Students in caps and gowns process down an aisle surrounded by family and friends. In many districts, faculty and staff join in the parade of academic gowns. Cameras are clicking. The orchestra is playing “Pomp and Circumstance,” and the parents wonder how 18 years could have passed so quickly. The school standouts and strugglers alike have a moment when they move the tassel on their mortarboard from right to left, or toss their caps in the air to celebrate their newly-acquired diplomas.

Most board members would say that attending their district’s graduation is the ultimate reward for the long hours of volunteer service, the evenings they spend in meetings, the wrangling over the school budget, and the criticism they sometimes have to endure as a board member.

In an informal survey done a few years ago by School Board Notes, 89 percent of respondents noted that school board members play a formal role in their district’s graduation ceremony. With this issue, School Leader celebrates that role.

The magazine reached out to school board presidents, the NJSBA board of directors and to the county association leaders asking them to share photos and memories of board member participation in graduation ceremonies. (The idea was to keep responses to a manageable number.) We were rewarded with the thoughtful comments and the photographs that you see featured in these pages.

In many districts, the board president is called upon to give a short speech. Most understand that their remarks should be brief.

Nobody – not students, family members or even faculty and staff – comes to graduation with the primary purpose of hearing a school board president speak. So the best speeches feature heart-felt congratulations, salute the hard work of students, and acknowledge the part that teachers and parents played in getting students to this day. Few board presidents can resist sending off the students with one last message. Nor should they. Commencement is one final “teachable moment,” and students can profit from the encouragement and advice of someone older and wiser. But at the same time, graduation speakers would do well to remember Franklin Roosevelt’s advice to his son about public speaking: “Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated.”

A few board presidents shared copies of prepared remarks they have delivered at past graduations with School Leader. These eloquent remarks – all of which fit Roosevelt’s parameters – are excerpted here.

So whether you’re sending high school graduates off to their futures, or middle school students on to high school, enjoy your district’s commencement ceremony this year. And remember that your hard work as a board member has helped make the day possible.

What Do Board Members Like Best About Graduation?

An informal School Board Notes survey asked readers what they like best about graduation. Selected comments include:

  • The marching in of the fully-robed staff – being led by the Teacher of the Year. Our chorus and band participation in providing the music and our Air Force Junior ROTC’s work with the flag presentation.
  • The superintendent’s address on the accomplishments of graduating students
  • All of it – it’s wonderful. The superintendent speaks for one minute, the board of education president for one minute and the rest of the speakers are all students.
  • I like being able to give each student a diploma and being able to congratulate them individually.
  • I like hearing the students speak. At both high school and the middle school, we have the class president, the salutatorian, and the valedictorian all speak. Additionally, at the middle school, we have the high school principal speak and welcome the class to the high school.
  • The students’ happiness, and the musical interludes.
  • When we are able to hold it outside it is relatively informal and parents have the chance to take lots of pictures.
  • Hearing from the students when they give their speeches.
  • The certified staff attend and wear gowns and form a tunnel for the students to walk through to their seating area.
  • A small video of the graduating class is shown.
  • It is a celebration of community; not just the graduates – although by definition, it is their night.
  • The graduates marching in their caps and gowns filling up the field looks really wonderful.
  • We offer “Project Graduation” following the ceremony.
  • The use of a bagpipe band for the entrance parade.
  • The principal recognizes those seniors who have earned special awards, and the National Honor Society members.
  • The ceremony is short: one hour total.
  • The students are asked to applaud the retiring high school staff and to thank their parents.
  • We all give out the diplomas and sometimes request a certain student. It becomes a very personal ceremony.
  • I love the small town feel of it on the varsity football field with the bleachers packed with parents, friends, and alumni in attendance cheering on the graduates. I also love that the high school band and chorus perform at the ceremony.
  • The listed achievements of the students, and a list of the schools they will be attending in their post-secondary efforts.
  • Watching the students and parents as their son or daughter receives a diploma.
  • The student speaker is selected by the graduating seniors themselves.
  • At the end the board members, administrators and faculty form two lines and the graduates walk through them as we all clap.
  • The students have a voice in creating the ceremony. This year one student played a violin solo, blending music of their years together. Another student was chosen to recite a poem she had written in honor of their graduation.
  • I like the moment where students receive their diploma, and the fact that the board plays a role in the program.
  • The decorum, the air-conditioned comfort of the arena, the jumbo screen, and the three-minute speeches
  • That they graduate on the high school’s front lawn and that it is about the students, who elect speakers from their class to address integrity, the future, and their ambitions.
  • When the students each come up for the diploma, to see the look on their faces, they are so happy, excited and relieved, all at the same time, even though I am sure they are nervous about what the future holds.
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