While planning her school’s 2019 graduation, Winter Haven High Principal Gina Williams was torn: Should she continue the tradition of holding commencement at Denison Stadium, or move the ceremony to Lakeland’s RP Funding Center, where she could more easily control for variables such as safety and weather?
“That’s when I realized, this wasn’t a decision I should be making,” Williams said. “It’s the students’ graduation. It should be up to them.”
Williams took her dilemma to the student councils of each grade level, presenting the pros and cons of moving the ceremony.
RP Funding Center: No chance of the event being cancelled for rain. Air conditioning. Tighter security.
Denison Stadium: Graduates would have the chance to walk across the field, just like many of their parents did.
Williams shared the two options, and put it to a vote of not only the student council, but also her School Advisory Committee (SAC), comprised of parents and community members. By a wide margin, voters decided that the graduation should move to the RP Funding Center (the SAC vote was unanimous).
As expected, Williams has received many questions and comments — not all positive — since announcing the decision to the school. She’s welcomed them all, even putting a “question and comment” box for students in the cafeteria, and she’s striving to address them all with a column in an upcoming edition of the student newspaper, as well as a segment in the school news broadcast.
She knows that, as with any decision, there are those “for” and those “against” moving graduation. What she hopes everyone can stand behind, however, is that students arrived at the decision democratically — and that in the process, they learned lessons about compromise and understanding opposing viewpoints.
“I really appreciated how this was handled. It was a really great use of the elected body we have. It’s a model of democracy,” said Haven Twyford, senior class vice president.
“Sometimes decisions are made and the first step we take is to get angry because we don’t know why. We got to understand the ‘why’ behind this. I got to listen to the reasons behind it and have my own voice heard, and because I’m elected by the student body, I got to speak for my friends.”
Added Liam Rerucha, senior class president:
“I thought it was good to get the students’ voices. It was a good idea to get everyone’s opinions, especially the people this matters the most to: the students.”
Williams and the student council are now brainstorming ways students could still have their moment to walk across Denison Field, perhaps in a special event prior to graduation, though no specific details have been determined.
“I’ve been very impressed by our student leadership, and the way they’ve come together to share ideas and discuss this change civilly,” Williams said.
Winter Haven High’s graduation will take place on May 30 at 6 p.m. at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland. More information can be found at PolkSchoolsFL.com/graduation.