A few weeks ago, I attended my son’s 8th grade promotion ceremony. Needless to say, I am extremely proud of him. He has overcome many obstacles and is becoming a responsible student and a principled friend and citizen, in addition to discovering his passions in life. He is ready for high school and the challenges ahead. The principal of his school organized the ceremony as close to the style of a high school ceremony as possible, as she said, “to mimic the real celebration to come in four years.” Her speech emphasized that the real prize would be high school graduation and college readiness. There were awkward family photos behind the seasonably warm bleachers afterward. It was a good day.
In order to attend the ceremony, I had to miss the last day of “classes” and goodbyes at my school, missing a huge celebration (including a huge inflatable water slide, a DJ, and popsicles among other things) to reward positive behaviors for all students. I felt some guilt about not being there to say goodbye to my students and share in the responsibilities of running the celebration. But of course, the choice was clear which place I should be.
The junior high where I teach, in the same district as my son’s school, does not have an 8th grade promotion ceremony. Instead, they have an “8th Grade Bash” at the neighboring city pool, right after school on the last Friday. 8th graders only; no families. There is music, food, and a continuous wave machine for surfing (attempts). The students can only attend if they have all passing grades, though this year there was a surprising number who could not attend. (I attribute this to more rigorous and standards-based assessment and grading, perhaps an unforeseen casualty of what is a positive shift overall).
When I mentioned to my colleagues that I would be missing the last day to attend my son’s ceremony, it raised what has apparently been an ongoing discussion of whether or not to bring back the 8th grade promotion at our school. We have an honors night, but little to no ceremony surrounding the big step students will take into high school. Psychologically and academically, it is indeed a big step. But 8th grade promotion is a leftover ceremony from a bygone time when most students did not finish high school. Now, although Arizona’s graduation rates are not fantastic, the expectation is that all students graduate high school, and the reality is that most do.
In these times, what purpose does an 8th grade promotion serve? Is it the milestone it once was? Is it meant to give gravitas to the transition to high school, where students will ostensibly be expected to take a more mature and focused approach to their education and future? Is it simply a spring celebration, marking growth and celebrating accomplishments? Is it a privilege one earns through behavior and grades, a way to keep students engaged through the end of the year? Is it the product of families and their expectations of the neighborhood school and its traditions?
Is a promotion ceremony the best way to mark these moments? Is a party?
How should the class of 2022 mark their own transition into high school next year?