KINGS VALLEY — Lined up in golf carts in front of Kings Valley Charter School on Saturday afternoon for a post-ceremony parade, the Class of 2020’s graduates waved, laughed and celebrated with friends and family as they passed by in their vehicles.
A few minutes earlier on the other side of the school, the students received their diplomas one-by-one from longtime school board member Sally Lammers and then lined up to complete the transition from candidate to graduate with the traditional turning of the tassel. Their loved ones looked on from their vehicles parked in designated spots on the soccer field.
It was an out-of-the-ordinary ceremony, for sure, but necessary because of pandemic-related restrictions in place.
“The golf carts made it seem a lot less dramatic, so I feel like it’s just a little less emotional and just kind of fun,” graduate Isabella Simer said. “And I think that’s what really defines this school — it’s fun and laid back.”
Another graduate, Anthony De Mory, felt it was a good experience and he was happy to be able to share one of life’s biggest milestones with those in attendance.
“It was organized well,” he said. “It could’ve been better but COVID got in the way of that.”
Along with Simer and De Mory, others on hand to receive their diplomas were Amber Belyeu, Beau Blansit, Autumn Bolton, Emily Clements, Mike Cowen, Noah King Groh and Ella Ryan. A 10th graduate, Jaide Johnson, was not able to participate.
The graduation program featured a combination of live speeches and prerecorded messages that could be viewed on Facebook for those watching from home. For those on site in their vehicles, they could listen through their vehicle’s radio.
Dan Bixler, who served as the Class of 2020 adviser, said organizers wanted to make sure the ceremony met not only the needs of those in physical attendance but for others watching off-site.
“We were trying to meet all of the needs that we could,” Bixler said. “Because we’re a small group, we can get away with having multiple individual components.”
One of those components involved a slide show that featured a “rose ceremony” — a way for students to thank those who have been important to them through school. Bixler led the effort to put together that element.
“I think the rose ceremony came off really genuine and beautiful — the video with that as well, but the audio, it was really nice to have that,” said Bixler, referring to those who could listen to the students’ comments at the site.
KVCS Executive Director Jamon Ellingson had the goal of making this year’s graduation a memorable one for both the in-person and online audiences.
“It was how can we make this run smoothly and get all of the things in that we would normally do in our intimate ceremony and still meet the needs of as many people as possible and do it safely?” Bixler said.
Two students gave speeches at the graduation — Ryan, the valedictorian, and Simer, who was one of two salutatorians with Emily Clements.
Ryan spent a portion of her speech on a recognition for her teachers.
“You get up every morning and you still come to school knowing what you’re going to have to face,” Ryan said. “It couldn’t have been particularly easy, but you took the time to teach us even when we weren’t appreciative. I want to tell you now that I respect you, I look up to you and I am so incredibly thankful that I got to learn from all of you.”
In her speech, Simer talked about the issue that has taken over the country over the past couple of weeks.
“One thing that every single teacher at the school taught me is that we all have a voice,” Simer said. “What we choose to do with that voice and the actions that result from them, truly define who we are.”
Simer, who attended KVCS since preschool, followed with inspirational comments about how Americans have united to fight against the injustices that people of color face.
“We must fight for those who are no longer with us, who lost their futures because of discrimination,” she said. “Because we are still here, we have a tomorrow and a future ahead of us. It’s truly something, and I think we can all agree, we take for granted.”
Simer finished with a message for her classmates.
“The students I see sitting before me have shown time and time again that they are not afraid to speak up for what they believe in,” she said. “And I know even after we are long gone from KVCS, that our impacts will be extraordinary. We will without a doubt make this world a better place.”
De Mory came to Kings Valley from Texas halfway through his sophomore year.
“It was definitely a big change but everyone accepted me and made me feel at home,” De Mory said. “I got to know some people really well and made some good friends.”
On a small campus such as Kings Valley, everybody obviously knows everybody else pretty well. That intimate backdrop rises to the surface during an event like graduation.
“In a small school, you know each student and each student is part of what we see every day,” Lammers said. “When people move on, we notice it, but it’s just exciting; they’ve all worked so hard.”
Bixler has taught students in larger schools and it’s the small classes at KVCS that he enjoys about the job.
“Before this, I was at Sweet Home and McNary and at McNary, you have gigantic classes and you don’t know them all, just a handful of them, depending on how many you had in class,” Bixler said. “But here you know everybody and you get to build those closer relationships. It’s one of the reasons why I’m here.”
An imposing weather forecast threatened to dampen the occasion and rain fell right up until the noon start. But although as if the organizers flipped a switch, the storm fizzled to keep conditions fairly dry through most of the ceremony.
“The rain actually stopped and the thunder stayed away. It was pretty creative and amazing cap to a really strange year,” Lammers said.
A strange school year indeed and one that certainly will not be forgotten by students, educators and families.
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