Health & Education

Area schools considering options to celebrate graduating seniors

04.30.2020 Danielle Frost Education

By Danielle Frost

Smoke Signals staff writer

For high school seniors, April, May and June are typically filled with fun events like breakfasts, proms, celebrations and graduations.

With the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic resulting in mandatory school closures statewide for the remainder of the year, educators and families are grappling with how to honor graduating seniors and also ensure they have the tools needed to successfully complete high school.

Grand Ronde Tribal Youth Education Manager Tim Barry has three staff members connecting with seniors on a regular basis.

“We launched a ‘Connect With All Kids’ project these past couple of days through personal phone calls home or e-mails to parents and youth to check and see how they are doing,” Barry says. “Staff are in direct contact with local school leadership on what assignments or other (projects) are needed to finish in order to graduate.”

According to Barry, there are approximately 19 Native senior students in the Willamina and Sheridan school districts.

Typically, the Tribe’s Education Department has an annual honors and recognition event in June to fete graduating high school and college seniors, but it is uncertain whether that will happen with COVID-19 restrictions in place.

“I think it all depends on what the state and the Tribal leadership decide over the next few weeks,” Barry says.

So far, the Tribe has not determined a date for returning to normal government operations and Spirit Mountain Casino remains shuttered.

Willamina School District Superintendent Carrie Zimbrick says that no decisions have been finalized yet on end-of-the-year senior activities.

“We have a senior advisory group at the high school and they are contacting each senior student to get their input,” she says. “We are also including the senior grad parent committee in the conversation.”

Zimbrick added that, so far, several ideas have been shared including how to celebrate graduation and in what format.

“It is still in the planning stages,” she added.

Sheridan School District Superintendent Steven Sugg also says how and where senior activities will be held is currently undetermined.

“Right now we don't have any formalized plans,” he says. “We are hoping that we will be able to hold our ceremony in June, but will likely reschedule for later in the summer. We are bouncing some ideas around, such as a virtual graduation or drive-through graduation. We did elect students to Prom Court before school was closed so we are planning to put yard signs in the yards of the students elected.”

Willamina High School senior and Grand Ronde Tribal member Iyana Holmes has been working hard this year to raise her grades and attendance. So, knowing that there will likely not be a normal graduation ceremony is disappointing.

“The thing I am sad about the most is my graduation and not being able to see the look on my family’s faces when I walk up to get my diploma,” she says. “I was so excited because I had done all this work just so I could participate in the graduation ceremony and make my mom proud that I did it.”

At the beginning of the school year, Holmes was lagging in credits and faced potentially repeating her senior year.

“There was a big chance that I would not graduate on time with my class,” she says. “I started doing online classes to catch up with my credits and was in a guided study class (as well).”

Holmes credits Kaylee Oaks, the Tribal Youth Education high school lead, for helping her keep her grades and attendance up.

“She made sure I was attending school on an everyday basis,” Holmes says. “Attendance was a huge part of graduating.”

A combination of online classes and making up school coursework resulted in Holmes going from potentially having to repeat her senior year to graduating early.

“I had a lot of help from Kaylee and my English teacher, Mrs. Shadden,” she says. “Without their help I would more likely still have to catch up. Thankfully, I completed everything I needed to and graduated early.”

And her thoughts on potentially not having a prom?

“I actually was planning on not attending prom. However, I am sad for my fellow classmates that were looking forward to prom because I know how important it is for some,” Holmes says. “I am also sad I could not say goodbye to all my teachers and thank them for all they have done for me.”

Holmes says her family is planning something to celebrate her graduation, but she isn’t sure what that will entail. As far as post high school plans go, hers are undecided at the moment.

“I am thinking about going into the Navy just like my aunt and if not that then I want to go to college and become a nurse or an equine veterinarian so I can use my love for horses as a career,” she says. “All I know is that no matter what I do, I hope it has something to do with the medical field.”

Holmes is excited about going on family camping trips, attending powwows, dancing and hanging out with her friends when the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

“I think the most important thing I have learned from all this is not to take the little things for granted and that being able to spend time with my family and friends is most important to me,” she says.