Behind the veil of commencement planning

By Ethan Groothuis, Mike Hanks, Sean Miner,
Andrew Wig

Nothing signals the end of another school year with as much celebration as commencement ceremonies.

But the annual pomp and circumstance isn’t without its hurdles, often behind the scenes from the view of parents and graduates.
Multiple schools and fewer venues, on top of the time constraints and all the nitty gritty details, are woes shared by many of area school districts.

Assistant Edina High School Principal Michael Pretasky is one of a large team of people that it takes to put together Edina’s commencement ceremony.

“This most public event our school district holds, and there is zero room for error,” Pretasky said. “I do not do this in isolation. We have a huge team of people to make sure everyone knows what is happening.”

From wrangling students, teachers, caps, gowns, insurance wavers and buses, the amount of small details is staggering – and all needs to be repeated starting the following January.

“I have 10-12 pages of a to-do list, broken down by month,” Pretasky said.

Currently, they are shopping for days and venues already for 2019.

“We are in competition with every other major suburban high school,” Pretasky said. “Mariucci also has commencement with schools within the University of Minnesota.”

Bloomington Public Schools has an added wrinkle to consider when commencement planning begins: The district has to conduct the exercise twice.

Historically that has meant that the district holds two nights of ceremonies rather than one. This year, the Jefferson and Kennedy high school seniors will receive their diplomas on consecutive nights at Mariucci Arena, on the campus of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.

The district has used the Minneapolis Convention Center and Target Centers in the past, dating back to 1994, according to district spokesman Rick Kaufman.

The cost of renting a venue has been the primary reason for Bloomington’s bouncing around Minneapolis. For more than a decade the school district used Target Center, but moved to the convention center in 2010 in order to reduce the district’s cost. The district was spending $5,000 per night in 2001 to rent the arena, and by 2009 that cost had increased to $14,500 per night, Kaufman noted.

In search of a better rate, the district moved back to the convention center in 2010, where it has previously held commencement in 1994 before establishing a long-term relationship with Target Center. The cost to move back to the convention center in 2010: about $9,000 per school, Kaufman said.

Cost containment has been a driving factor in where Bloomington has held its ceremony, but it isn’t the only consideration. The convention center provided a large auditorium with ample seating, but the district was at the mercy of market demands. If a major event was looking for convention space, Bloomington was in jeopardy of being displaced, Kaufman explained.

The solution was to hold back-to-back ceremonies on the same night since the district didn’t lose both dates that year. That meant holding the first of two ceremonies at 5 p.m. in order to complete both schools and allow a transition period for one school’s graduates and families to vacate while the second school’s graduates and families filtered in. The uncertainty of securing the convention center space was an influencing factor in the district’s move to the University of Minnesota hockey arena three years ago, according to Kaufman.

The district did hold back-to-back ceremonies on the same night at Mariucci in 2015, and it’s a schedule that the district will try again next year, as the cost per night for the facility has topped more than $15,000, Kaufman noted.

The district also limits its site consideration to locations that are a reasonable distance from Bloomington, as the district provides bus transportation to and from the venue for graduates as part of the $60 fee it collects for the ceremony, Kaufman said.

Choosing dates for commencement ceremonies happens at least a year in advance, and if the district is interested in finding a new location, the planning and negotiating to make the move can require two years of planning because of the competition for venues, according to Kaufman. When the district made the move to Mariucci Arena in 2014, “we were at the mercy of others,” he said. “They were using Mariucci Arena long before we did.”

Instead of dealing with multiple ceremonies, Richfield has had to contend with multiple locations.

During the past three decades, the Richfield High School commencement ceremony has taken place in the old Met Center, Northrup Auditorium and the Minneapolis Convention Center.

One venue that has been ruled out for the ceremony is the school’s football field. There are a number of reasons for this, according to Assistant Principal Teresa Rosen, who said she has twice studied the possibility of an outdoor graduation similar to that of Richfield’s other big high school, Academy of Holy Angels.

First, there’s the cost. Renting the chairs, the staging and the sound system – it all adds up, to the tune of $10,000, Rosen said.

And then, of course, “you can’t plan on the weather,” she said. And in the case of uncooperative skies, the ceremony would be forced inside the school, where seating would be limited, disappointing families during their monumental moment.

“Our kids are sometimes the first ones to graduate from their family,” Rosen said.

Having enough parking is another concern regarding an outdoor ceremony, she noted.

Rosen, who has been to every Richfield High School commencement but one since she began working for the district in 1989, isn’t even sure an outdoor ceremony matches the atmosphere the school is trying to cultivate.

“An outdoor ceremony has a tendency to be less formal, and we want to keep our events formal ceremonies that acknowledge the great accomplishments our students have made,” Rosen said.

But one day several years ago, she and then-Principal Steven West sat on the bleachers while contemplating an outdoor commencement.
“He says, ‘Look how beautiful this is,’” Rosen recounted. “And while we were sitting, a plane flew over and we had to stop talking.”

So, there’s the recurring bugaboo of airplane noise. Parking is another problem in holding the ceremony at the high school, Rosen added.
For the indoor ceremonies that Richfield High School has settled on, organizers favor the auditorium at the Minneapolis Convention Center over other spaces in the facility.

They request the space a year out in advance, but if a bigger renter comes along, they can get bounced from the auditorium to a less desirable cavern in the massive complex.

Rosen notes, though, that they’ve never been bounced by another school, even if there has been competition for space over the years. The convention center gatekeepers are “very fair,” she stressed.

As for the date selected for graduation, “in all honesty, it’s dictated by when we can get the best facility,” Rosen said.
Every year, she witnesses the result of all the logistical wrangling.

“What’s really fun,” Rosen reflected, “is seeing their families love them and hug them and take pictures of them.”

Like death and taxes, a commencement ceremony occurs at the end of every year. Despite being an annual ceremony, details still need to be worked on months in advance.

Eden Prairie
Leading the annual charge on graduation at Eden Prairie High School are three people: Associate Principal Molly Hollenbeck, Support Staff Member Susan Nixon and Administrative Assistant Martha Nordmann.

According to Nordmann, the planning process takes a significant chunk of each spring.

“It pretty much starts about the first of January, when we come back from winter break,” said Nordmann. “We meet a lot and start planning our program and march process.”

Attention to detail is what makes the magical evening in June such a well-oiled machine. Nordmann, Hollenback and Nixon give each cog in that machine at least a once-over, from ensuring proper name pronunciation to working to accommodate any students with special needs.
That committee also lines up student speakers for the evening, which includes an audition process. Each student speaker need only be a senior to apply.

“Once the students are picked, we work with them,” said Nordmann. “We’ve been working with them each week, helping them tweak some of the speeches for length and such.”

Preparation for the night of graduation ramps up as the weather warms, and when the evening itself comes, a smoothly coordinated effort between dozens of people makes the operation as seamless as possible.

Nordmann ticked off custodial, security and other logistical staff among the ranks of the graduation squad.

Transporting everything needed for graduation, from plants and other decorations to choir risers and music stands, takes hours beforehand.
It all goes to Mariucci Arena for the evening, where Eden Prairie High School graduations have taken place for about a decade, said Nordmann.

“I work closely with Craig Flor at Mariucci,” said Nordmann. “He and his crew are just fabulous every year. We were one of the first high schools using Mariucci, and Craig has been wonderful.”