In the simplest of terms, high school can be described as four years of trials, triumph, identity and uncertainty; claiming to be the primary years of growth, maturity and shaping of your future. However, the mind continues to develop and finalize the balance between ideas, morals, personality traits and behaviors until 25 years of age. So high school is more the bridge between youth to the brink of adulthood, not the entire definition of who you’ll turn out to be in life.
Most importantly during these four years, students are able to interact with student organizations, have the freedom to create spaces for identity expression, unify groups to advocate for equitable opportunities, parade the halls during spirit week in a costume donning smiles and laughter rather than a write up, or even take home bragging rights for a century old football rivalry.
However, COVID-19 has changed this experience for all students, especially the graduating class of 2021, or Manual’s current seniors. The graduating class of 2020 lost the opportunity to finish their second semester with the traditional senior prom, senior ring ceremony, even in-person graduation. Seniors were deprived of their last experiences as high school students. They were unable to say goodbye with hugs and tears, instead sharing affection through masks, drive by celebrations and slide shows full of memories.
The class of 2021 had hopes that this narrative wouldn’t be true for their senior year, but cases continued to climb when more people returned to their jobs, families began travelling during the summer, restaurants began to reopen and normalcy was rushed. As a result, JCPS students had to complete the first six weeks of school using NTI rather than attending in-person ; the plan to extend NTI for another six weeks snowballed into a timeline that could now resolve by February of 2021 at the earliest.
The over 60,000 students reportedly failing NTI prompted JCPS to grant high school seniors the opportunity to graduate mid-year; an opportunity many jumped at. Eligibility requirements stated that the student must have completed all of their required course credits, withdrawal from college/dual-credit courses and complete and pass their Civics Test, Backpack Senior Defense and Individual Learning Plan as well. Seniors will still be able to participate in award ceremonies, prom and graduation at the end of this school year; however, students graduating early will not be eligible to participate in athletics or attend classes after they are officially a graduate.
This option excited many students within participating schools, as it would bring a definite end to what seemed to be a repetition of broken promises and false hopes in current circumstances of the pandemic. Seniors from duPont Manual, Louisville Male and Atherton have shared their thoughts about moving forward with their early graduation and the next steps in their academic careers.
“I chose mid year graduation because I wanted to be able to have time before jumping into college. NTI and quarantine was suffocating and dealing with school became draining…Before I transition to school for the fall semester, my mom and I plan to travel to East Africa,” Edita Peter, a recent duPont Manual graduate, said.
“I plan to continue my education at the [University of Louisville] for the spring 2021 semester. I hope to balance school and work during the evenings and weekends. I am just excited to be free and plan trips with friends when we’re all graduates,” Sky Rump, a recent duPont Manual graduate, said.
Some students even had their sights set on early graduation before the option was presented.
“School has always been a requirement. After a while, it became something like second nature to manage… I am undecided at the moment, but I think I will attend North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University for engineering. Graduating early was something I heard about and was not seriously considering until COVID hit. Staying on a computer screen and learning content that will soon go down the drain just wasn’t worth it,” Keirsi Birch, a recent Atherton graduate, said.
“I began considering graduating early my freshman year. I decided to co-op for my senior year, then COVID happened. UPS has an early graduation program with certain JCPS high schools such as Male and Manual… At the moment, I am juggling between travelling via van across the U.S. for a gap year or working and going to school,” Marah Taylor, a recent Male graduate, said.
As exciting and thrilling as the future may seem, there are aspects of high school that make the journey the slightest bit sweeter. Sweet enough for students to return or visit one last time before they say farewell.
“I will miss seeing my closest friends everyday between classes. The five minutes from class to class could hold brutal information about a new teacher, a snow day, a pop quiz or even a sub. Of course most of all, the energy at football games that gave everyone something to do on a Friday night. Everyone was in the moment, no matter where on the bleachers you stood,” Rump said.
“During my time at Male, we’ve always had the barrel. There’s nothing like bringing that up and hearing alumni and current students rave,” Taylor said.
“…no matter the class, there is always someone else struggling, if not the whole class. This just made it easier sometimes knowing that it wasn’t just me or my focus but we were lowkey united in feeling lost,” Birch said.
These students have advice for transitioning ninth graders and returning juniors and sophomores, as seniors that have seen both the ups and the downs of high school, realized their learning preferences, endured NTI and persevered through such unsettled difficulties.
“Underclassmen especially, utilize your teachers and counselors. Everyone [at Manual] wants and is willing to help. All you have to do is ask,” Peter said.
“I realized that people will come and go as any experience, however, just let it happen and let the journey take its course. I advise that you take your courses serious, however, don’t allow such pressure impact your mental health. Your mental health and wellbeing is way more important than a grade. Love yourself and the people around you,” Taylor said.
Through the triumphs of surviving junior year and pushing to survive and graduate during a pandemic may seem monumental in future textbooks, but has become the “new normal” for students such as these and many others to come.
Before the tears are shed and the final goodbyes are said, was the hassle really worth the tassel?