Silver Chips Online

Graduating to a better venue

October 7, 2010
This article was written by the Silver Chips Print Editorial Board and is intended to represent the official views of the newspaper.

At the inaugural senior class meeting this September, Blair administrators announced that this year's class of 2011 will graduate at the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Constitution Hall and that senior classes will continue to use the venue for commencement "forever." The declaration was a decisive blow for Blair, because DAR Constitution Hall is an insufficient facility for graduation. At a time when budgets are shrinking and enrollment is expanding, the scramble for a suitable venue is understandable. But there are better and more viable options for Blair, and MCPS and Superintendent Jerry Weast are standing in their way.

Let us be clear: The Blair administration and community deserve none of the blame. Senior class advisor Claudette Smith, in particular, has proven to be a worthy asset for Blazers, working in past years to create a system that provides seniors with additional tickets for graduation, beyond the four seats to which DAR Constitution Hall's size restricts Blazer families. The Blair Parent-Teacher-Student Association (PTSA), led capably by Pete Lafen, has provided Blazers with the facts through its exhaustive surveys of graduation options in previous years. But the need for Ms. Smith and Mr. Lafen to navigate around such problems at all only highlights the inadequacies of the venue itself.

The primary problem is size. Although students' leftover tickets can be transferred to seniors who need more, it is highly unlikely that any family can obtain more than six tickets (excluding the graduate). At Blair, where diverse family circumstances make high school graduation a more important event for the community than at many other county schools, the venue thus prevents many students from sharing the celebratory day with all their loved ones.

Previous graduating senior Blair's commencement was at DAR this spring have also complained about poor sight lines, inconvenient handicapped access, the considerable distance from Blair and a horrendous parking situation.

Other possibilities have included Cole Field House, the Comcast Center and an outdoor ceremony at Blair, but each has significant obstacles. The best option, in fact, isn't even on the table. Jericho City of Praise, a Hyattsville church that frequently housed Blair commencement ceremonies in past years, has more than enough space and is easily accessible. But Dr. Weast's 2005 decision to forbid schools from using the venue forced Blair and other large county schools into this unsustainable situation.

From the start, Dr. Weast's reasoning was flawed. The pretense that the church might offend county families is understandable but unnecessary the venue has gained vocal support from the vast majority of Blazers in PTSA-conducted surveys. And DAR Constitution Hall's troubled racial legacy (the organization infamously refused to allow black singer Marian Anderson to perform in 1939) is already an offensive reputation.

The real motivation for such reticence to allow graduation at Jericho City of Praise, though, seems less ideological than pragmatic. Dr. Weast fears litigation that the venue could bring, and with good reason, considering the threats that interest groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State have made against the county. But recent judicial precedent provides clear evidence that such a lawsuit would be without grounds. A federal judge in Connecticut ruled this May that public schools could not hold graduation at churches if there were other viable options in terms of size, cost and location. And in this case, there clearly are no comparable alternatives.

One of the principal reasons for that lack of choices is a failure to fund. It's understandable that county allotments to schools for commencement ceremonies would be reduced during recessionary years. But it makes absolutely no sense to provide each school with the same amount of money, as MCPS does currently. Each school receives $5,000, despite the fact that some county high schools have roughly half the number of seniors that Blair does. That comes out to a nearly $20 disparity in per-student funding, which is both discriminatory and nonsensical. It also renders more expensive facilities, like the Comcast Center, entirely out of the question.

It may be too late to change the venue for the current senior class, but future grades should fight hard to restore their graduation to the only place that makes sense. We consider the separation of church and state an essential tenet, but graduation at this church does not threaten its maintenance. Dr. Weast needs to provide Blair with sufficient funding or loosen his stance on church graduation; since economic constraints have ruled out the former, the resistance to Jericho City of Praise is impractical at best and detrimental at worst.