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Gazette Premium Content It's graduation season, with all its traditions and sometimes a little fun

By Debbie Kelley Updated: May 11, 2014 at 9:04 am

It's that time of year. Tassels and robes. Meaningful speeches about life. Pomp and circumstance.

And at some graduations, inflated beach balls, noisemakers, Mardi Gras beads and silly string.

List: Pikes Peak-area graduations

Known for being steeped in tradition, and well, let's face it, stodginess, commencement ceremonies can be long and boring.

That's one of the reasons some schools allow for lighthearted interjections.

After all, says Del Garrick, principal at Woodland Park High School, "It's a celebration of accomplishments for students, families and friends."

The school, in the mountains west of Colorado Springs, puts on an event described as "fun" with a capital F.

Each year, the 200 or so graduates are allowed to chant or cheer whenever a speaker at the ceremony at the Pikes Peak Center mentions their class, in this case 2014.

They can bring inflatable balls or other shapes (like last year's sheep) to bat around while they're seated on stage.

Cowbells are A-OK, as is decorating their graduation cap with sayings or references to their future college. Sunglasses are a common accessory, to help cut the glare of the lighting.

"It's special and unique to our school and our students," Garrick said of the ceremony style. "The kids have the freedom to express themselves because it's their accomplishment."

But, there are rules.

During the practice on the morning of graduation day, Garrick said, administrators lecture students on what they can and cannot do.

"We talk a lot about what respect looks like," Garrick said, "and while they're more than welcome to have a good time, they're no longer in kindergarten and need to respect fellow classmates and guest speakers."

That means students cannot be noisy or disrespectful during a speech or musical performance, and they're reminded of the parameters right before the ceremony starts.

Allowing some leeway seems to help students honor the boundaries, Garrick said.

"They do a great job with their behavior. They hold it down when they're supposed to and have fun at the right times," he said.

"People seem pleasantly surprised because it's different, but it works."

Graduation at Colorado Springs Early Colleges, a charter high school authorized by the Colorado Charter School Institute, runs along the same lines, with props such as beach balls, noisemakers, sunglasses with the graduation year and personalized caps.

"It's a little on the light side," administrator Keith King said.

"We get the senior class involved in the planning, and the fun is the students' idea," he said. "It's a ceremony, but it's also a moment for them to do something that's memorable to them."

Traditional elements are included: the grand march into First United Methodist Church where the ceremony is held, a few speeches and official awarding of diplomas and degrees. Students also add serious features, such as a flute or vocal solo by a talented classmate.

The approach fits the school's identity as "an engine of innovation," King said. As its name suggests, Colorado Springs Early Colleges focuses on students charting their future by taking college courses and earning associate's or bachelor's degrees at the same time as their high school diploma.

"Because of the entrepreneurial aspect of our school, the kids feel engaged in all aspects, including the graduation ceremony," King said.

Out east at Calhan High School, longtime traditions that have become community-wide expectations prevail. Alumni who graduated from the school, both decades ago and more recently, are asked to stand and be recognized. A senior class member always sings a solo. A memory video with baby pictures of graduates plays on a big screen. Teachers wear long robes with hoods indicating their college alma mater.

"It's very structured and formal because we believe it's important for students to understand the importance of education," Calhan School District RJ1 Superintendent Linda Miller said.

But every year at the conclusion, it's time to kick up some heels. The 50 or so graduates are allowed one "playful" act involving Miller. Last year, every graduate put a string of Mardi Gras beads around her neck. Another year she got a plastic beach ball and a challenge to toss it around. Then there were the mounds of red plastic cups, which she made into a tower on stage. Sometimes it's been silly string or goofy hats.

"I'm a little scared each year - I don't know what I'll get," Miller joked. "But it's controlled fun, and there are expectations around behavior."

Some school districts wouldn't dream of including even one deviation from their usual commencement format.

Five years ago, Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 switched its venue from the high school football field to the Colorado Springs World Arena.

That created concern about whether the district would be able to continue longstanding traditions related to the look and feel of the ceremony, Superintendent Walt Cooper said.

But the school was able to set up the seating and other aspects in a similar fashion and maintain the culture of the event - which has never permitted anything out of the ordinary.

Cowbells? Confetti?

"Oh, no, no." Cooper said.

"Our students and their families and friends are respectful of the ceremony and are mature and appropriate in the way they celebrate their accomplishment," he said. "Proper decorum doesn't often become an issue."

Lewis-Palmer School District 38's two high schools also go formal, all the way.

Graduation ceremonies for Lewis-Palmer High and Palmer Ridge High are held at the U.S. Air Force Academy's Clune Arena, where everyone must pass through a metal detector, and event staff from the arena direct guests and sell refreshments.

The ceremonies attract up to 5,000 people and are "formal, professional and well-orchestrated," D-38 spokeswoman Robin Adair said.

"Occasionally, a kid jumps after getting the diploma," she said, "but that's about all."

And, if students misbehave, "They're turned over to the MPs (military police)."

"So that sets a serious tone," Adair said.

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