Graduation Degradation

Graduation Balloons

My son had his Fifth Grade graduation ceremony this week.

The concept of graduating from elementary school seems odd to me. Don’t get me wrong, the ceremony was lovely and I don’t object to giving the kids a farewell. But do we have to call it a graduation?

It smacks too much of giving every child a trophy for showing up.

When I was a kid growing up in New Zealand we didn’t even have high school graduation, let alone a rite of passage in the middle of our school careers. The only person who got a dinky little statuette was the player of the day at rugby or cricket; they kept it until the next game when the coach deftly awarded it to someone else. So yes, I start with an old school bias.

Fifth Grade is not the end of school. You don’t sit any exams to qualify for middle school. It is not the culmination of years of focused study. It is just an arbitrary line that divides children in one school building from another. In our school district, elementary school used to run through Sixth Grade so it is a flexible standard at best.

Finishing Fifth Grade is expected. Yet, even in our middle-class suburban school some kids graduate reading or doing math at below grade level. This is a problem that should be addressed. Letting these kids graduate before they are ready seems a rather perverse way of dealing with them. What sort of message does it send to a child who graduates when they don’t possess the skills to perform at the next level?

I’m not advocating for holding kids back. Clearly that is a vexing issue beyond the scope of this column (if you are interested here is recent study). But, we should be throwing resources at these kids rather than just handing them diplomas.

I get that they are young, and I am all for letting kids be kids and not forcing them to grow up too fast but, sometimes the harsh realities of life get in the way of childhood innocence. If a child is not operating at grade level it is too serious a problem to just be shifted on up to the next school or the teacher on the floor above.

Fifth year graduation is not just a pretence it degrades the value of a real graduation. I mean a college graduation. That is the graduation that is not a foregone conclusion. The one you have to work towards and pass. You might take an extra years or you might fail to finish at all.

In 2012 only 59 percent of first-time, full-time students who began a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution six years earlier had completed the degree at that institution, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Nothing guaranteed about getting a degree. You have to work at it. Graduation is a reward not a right.

This matters because these Fifth Grade kids are eventually going to encounter the real world where there is competition and hierarchies exist. Where you have to deal with disappointment. Where showing up at college or work is no guarantee you will graduate or get promoted.

Back in the days when I worked I remember my boss rolling his eyes about one of my Millennial colleagues who threatened to quit because he had worked for a year and not got a promotion. I wonder how many “graduation” ceremonies had fertilized his expectations over the years?

Let’s rename the graduation event we had at school this week a leaving ceremony. We can acknowledge it is time of transition in the kids’ lives. There is no harm in giving them a good send off.

In the last week my son’s class had a students-only party, a field trip to Broadway and they worked on their legacy project. The legacy project is about giving back, which is a quality we should be encouraging in our children.

Last year’s Fifth Grade raised money to put the school name in big letters above the door to the auditorium. This year the departing class has planted native flowers and shrubs on a once overgrown bank behind one of the school playgrounds.

Of course, these projects are heavily reliant on the parents. We had to clear the slope of invasive weeds, lay landscape fabric and buy the plants before the kids came out and put them in the ground. Now the parents need to mulch the beds and water the plants over the summer.

But still in the years to come, I hope these departing Fifth Graders will look up that slope and see the little native woodland they had a hand in restoring. Maybe they will only appreciate the legacy they had a part in creating when they have experienced the ups and downs involved in graduating from college.

The Fifth Grade Legacy Project

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