Last night I attended the graduation ceremonies for City Academy, a small, urban charter high school in Salt Lake City. (I'm City Academy's Board Chair.) I couldn't help but compare that event with the graduation ceremonies at Pleasant Grove High School, where my daughter received her diploma a week ago, or those of BYU and Westminster College which I have attended over the years.
CA graduated 18 students. Of that number one was from Brazil, another from Germany, and three others from Latin America. Many had struggled to get to graduation, and all were thrilled to have made it.
I know these things because their advisor spoke about each of the students, and then each student spoke briefly. By the time the event was over, a close listener could begin to suss out the relationships that made their graduation possible. Most spoke of their families, two women spoke about their boyfriends, several mentioned a couple of challenging but inspiring teachers, and every one talked about how much they had appreciated the help of their faculty advisors.
The event was unceremonious by the standards of PGHS, BYU, or Westminster. The talks weren't fully prepared, the microphones squawked often, the refreshments came from home, parents crowded the stage to shoot photos of their kids, children ran around the room. Graduation events at all of the other schools would have limited this sort of stuff. And they would have been loaded with more ceremonial activities.
The relative absence of ceremony and symbol, and the presence of microphone feedback, homemade refreshments, and meandering kids were not a distraction because CA creates relationships that accept all of those things, because all of those things fit in CA's idea of itself.
CA's relationships are due in part to its mission, and to its faculty, and to its remarkable founder Sonia Woodbury. But they are due also to the school's size and the demands that it places on people. CA has to do everything that larger schools do (assessment, theatre, dances, state reports, etc.) and that means that all of the faculty and most of the students are generalists. That makes it possible for them to be connected to each other in varied, powerful ways.
Bigger schools lack those connections. At PGHS the Student Council did many of the things that all students at CA are responsible for. The same general point is true for BYU, which is so large that every task is completed by some small group or individual.
Westminster is on the cusp of moving from CA's model to that of the bigger schools. Our enrollment is larger than ever before, but even more to the point, there is a persistent sense that Westminster needs to strengthen its sense of community (even though that level of community is far stronger than any I've ever seen in higher ed).
I don't know exactly how a school strengthens its sense of community, but if the lessons from graduation mean anything, it is that ceremony for large schools takes the place of community at small schools. The question, then, is how to craft ceremonies that build community, and how to do it in a way that strengthens relationships rather than replacing them with empty symbols and pledges.