As I reflect on the current — albeit unofficial count — of the 2,582 graduates of the Atlanta Public Schools’ Class of 2020 walking across the virtual stage, I cannot stop thinking about the fact that their final year wasn’t supposed to end like this. Without a prom. Without final senior year activities. Without all of the pomp and circumstance. Even though we plan to hold traditional ceremonies at a later safe date (because the Class of 2020 – as they themselves put it – are #WorthTheWait), it really isn’t the same. And I’m really sad for them.
But when I think on what I experienced watching and participating in the virtual celebrations, something emerged in them and all of us as we came to this culminating point. Something truly special was revealed through 14 virtual celebrations: resilience, passion, pride, grit, empathy, and love. That is the Class of 2020!
I’ve said before that no one puts on a traditional high school graduation ceremony like APS. (Every year I’m a wreck rewriting my speeches a thousand times and teary over every word.) You only have to view our ceremonies held over the past years at both the Georgia World Congress Center and Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion to get choked up in seconds listening to our valedictorians and salutatorians speak. But we have now learned – through the resilience, determination, and energy of our students, our principals, our teachers, our staff, and our families – no one puts on a virtual celebration like APS either. Shazam! Get it, APS!
(Thank you, Class of 2020 for a job well done! And thanks to our graduation team including Dr. Isaac Sparks, Dr. Dan Sims, our graduation coaches and senior advisers, the high school principals, and our communications/engagement teams!)
The videos below reveal that APS came up with a richer, deeper reflection of the Class of 2020 at each of our schools. Yes, a pandemic literally contaminated (naughty, naughty, annoying virus) all of our traditional graduation plans. But what materialized was a chance to know a class of amazing and beautiful students in ways we have never done before.
And we made connections like never before as well. While a traditional in-person ceremony might bring in an audience from 2,000 to 5,500, depending on the size of the graduating class, these virtual celebrations typically attracted even more viewers for each live premiere, with one school even reaching more than 11,000 viewers!!! We expect that these viewership numbers will continue to rise over time as our reach extends around the globe! Over 115,000 viewers have celebrated with us over this past week! Wow!
All of this makes me hopeful for our future, which I told these more than 2,500 graduates at length in my recent letter to them. And they are already proving themselves up to the challenge as shown by more evidence as they have already amassed more than $105 million (and counting) in scholarship dollars, which includes the more than $17 million earned by more than 1,000 Achieve Atlanta Scholars to qualify each of them for up to $20,000 for four years of college. (Yaaazzzzzz that’s a special scholarship program JUST for APS grads!)
But their work and their lives, have only begun. Some view “commencement” ceremonies as an end, but the word itself actually means “a beginning … a start.” And I would submit that the word has never had more meaning for a class of graduates than it does now. You got this, Class of 2020!
Never have students been more eager for a new beginning and a different start than amid COVID-19. And after we get through this, many members of the Class of 2020 will continue their education in the military, at a college or technical school or on a job. I have no doubt they will excel there as they did in high school. Some students, with their high school diplomas in hand, are off to the workforce prepared to start their careers. Others have stepped up to the challenge of protecting our nation by joining the armed services, and we are so proud of their commitment to our country. This is truly a beginning of the next chapter of the rest of their lives.
Whatever paths these graduates choose, I can only hope that they will take all of their lessons, experiences and friendships with them. But for now, I want them to take a moment to celebrate in the works and honors they have achieved.
Strength comes from struggle, and the strongest are those forged in the fight. They have already developed and demonstrated so much strength, as I’ve witnessed in our conversations, projects, football practices, water polo games, and everything else we’ve done together. They are already strong, and by the virtue of being the class forced to brave a pandemic through to graduation, they will indeed become the strongest, most resilient, most prepared students of their generation.
I am already starting to miss them, but I am so proud of each and every one of them. And I am bursting with pride because Operation Grad Nation #WorthTheWait, once again, was a huge success! #APSGrad20
For now, we can relive the spirit of the Class of 2020 through our virtual celebrations. I’ve collected each video along with a sampling of my favorite new memories and have shared them in the galleries below. Enjoy!
Best wishes and congratulations to the Class of 2020! I love you and will miss you!
Carver Early College
Alonzo A. Crim High School
Frederick Douglass High School
Grady High School
Maynard H. Jackson High School
Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy
KIPP Atlanta Collegiate
Benjamin E. Mays High School
North Atlanta High School
South Atlanta High School
Therrell High School
Booker T. Washington High School