A John F. Kennedy High School senior holds up his diploma in front of a banner of his peers at a socially distant graduation that took place over the first three days in June to help stop the spread of coronavirus. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

Clad in caps, gowns and face masks, dozens of high school seniors from John F. Kennedy High School gathered Tuesday to walk one-by-one into the school’s black box theater to receive high school diplomas from their principal, after a global pandemic cancelled their traditional commencement.

Their ceremony, which stretched over three days so people could keep their distance as the state and nation continue to battle the virus, was one of many creative graduations this spring

The moment was not only significant for graduates and their families, but for a new team of Kennedy administrators, showing their year’s worth of concerted effort to ensure the graduation scandal of 2019 did not happen again. Last year, half of the senior class learned one month after graduation they hadn’t actually been eligible for a diploma and were forced to attend summer school or repeat the school year. The fallout resulted in administrative turnover, investigations at the local and state level, more in-depth reviews of student transcripts and forced the NOLA Public Schools district to keep its own set of student records on Kennedy students.

This year, about 93 percent of the students in the class of 2020 were cleared to graduate. There were 114 names in the commencement program, out of a class of 123. 

This spring brought another challenge for Kennedy students and staff: a pandemic that shuttered public schools for the last two months of the year and robbed the class of 2020 of traditional senior rites of passage, like prom, spring sports seasons and graduation. Still, Kevin George, the CEO of Kennedy’s charter group, the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, said a celebration must go on.

“We just felt it was so important to have that symbolic nature of walking across the stage, hearing your name called, having some loved ones here to be able to hear and cheer you on, So that’s why we wanted to do something like this,” George said Tuesday. “We knew we wanted to have their name called. We wanted to have that diploma presented to them. We wanted to have that picture taken with them, and that’s why it was so important to hold this ceremony like this. It’s been well received and well worth it.”

Principal Alnita Porea described similar sentiments in a letter to families. 

“It’s important for these students to have this moment because graduation, in and of itself, is a milestone but particularly for this group of seniors,” Porea said. “Their high school experience has not been traditional in any way, but these young people have persevered. The least we can do is to give them a moment with their cap and gown in front of their families.”

The mini-ceremonies began as students met staff outside the building. Three administrators met students and advised they could bring six family members in, some families had to leave friends or family outside. Six mask-wearing family members could join in the six chairs spaced out in the theater, provided they passed temperature checks at the door. 

“Pomp and Circumstance” was playing on a loop, and yellow and blue flowers lined the stage. George, Porea and the school counselor for seniors read each student’s name and presented their diploma to family applause and cheers. 

Then they left the theater and a staff member wiped down each chair between every graduate and the administrators used hand sanitizer. 

As Myron Braden left the school with his family, they posed for pictures in front of a banner of his classmates. 

“It just feels good, and I’m just blessed. I just have to continue my journey and make bigger moves. I made it. I’m done. I’m happy it’s over with,” he said. “On to the next chapter.”

“We’re just happy he did it,” a family member said. Braden said he did it for his family. 

Nearby, Jerald Jenkins was adjusting his regalia and preparing to walk into the school with his family. 

“I mean, it could have been better than it is right now, but I’m enjoying my time,” he said.

His mother was relieved he’d still have a diploma presented to him. 

“I’m glad he still gets to experience it,” she said. “Even though it’s not as large as it should have been, I’m ok with it.”

The diploma presentations were recorded and will be sent to families at a later date. 

“I give total credit to Ms. Porea and her team,” George said. “They’ve done an amazing job making sure we were safe and took the proper precautions.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...