There were a few more tears than usual shed at Atwood-Hammond High School's commencement exercises — and not just by the graduates and their loved ones.
Friday evening's ceremony marked the last one in the district's long history. Next year, the high school will be closed, and the seniors will be part of the first graduating class of the newly consolidated Atwood-Hammond-Arthur-Lovington school district.
Aside from the mix of emotions felt by graduates and community members, the ceremony in the high school gym remained fairly traditional.
"It's really about the kids," Principal Sarah Evans said, adding they were front and center. In addition to speeches by valedictorian Alexandria Miller and salutatorian Chantell Bonham, seniors Gayle Schalbach and Donial McCartney sang solos and graduating class members participated in a band performance. "We wanted to give them that same experience that all of the other classes have had."
Friday kicked off more than a dozen high school commencement exercises in a nine-day stretch around East Central Illinois. Here's a peek at what to expect.
The school's mid-morning ceremony will have a new outdoor venue since State Farm Center, which hosted it the past 38 years, is undergoing a three-year renovation.
Principal Matthew Stark is crossing his fingers that the weather on May 31 will cooperate so that the ceremony can be held at McKinley Field. If it rains, it will be moved to the Urbana Middle School gym.
While some graduates were disappointed they wouldn't be receiving their diplomas at the University of Illinois arena, Stark said many looked on the bright side.
"They get it," he said. "Our class president, Saul Downie, is the youngest of three kids. He talked about how it's neat that he'll get to have something different than his siblings."
Stark is excited that the grads are having a bigger role in this year's ceremony. In addition to Downie, who will serve as the event's emcee, there will be two class speakers — Victor Mouschovias and Ficara Akins — instead of one.
Alumna and Urbana attorney Erika Harold, a former Miss America and Republican U.S. Congressional candidate, will be the keynote speaker.
This is also the first year that the ceremony will be streamed live on the web. Stark said Greg Hall, the school's assistant principal and athletic director, has been working to make that possible.
Central and Centennial
Champaign's high school ceremonies will be held back-to-back next week at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
While Central, which goes first on Tuesday, has had a long tradition of holding its commencement exercises in Foellinger Great Hall, this will be the first time for Centennial.
"We're following their lead," said Centennial Principal Gregory Johnson, whose school also held its ceremony at State Farm Center.
While students and families always enjoyed that venue, Johnson believes they'll also like the new setting.
"It just shifts the tone," he said. "It is more intimate and a little bit more formal, and we're looking forward to it."
What won't change? Student involvement.
During last month's auditions, Mecca Muhammad, a state finalist in a special-occasion speaking contest, and Illinois-bound basketball standout Michael Finke were selected to give speeches. Also, Yedidia Hubbard and James Akinleye were chosen to sing a duet and Rachel Berner was selected to perform a solo.
In addition, Wandjell Harvey-Robinson, an African American Club officer, will introduce the board of education, and senior class president Greg Huss will lead the tassel ceremony.
Central's 137th annual commencement program will be traditional, Principal Joe Williams said.
Senior class president Madison Miller will serve as the emcee, and Priya Jain and Norrlyn-Michael Allen were selected to speak at the ceremony.
Officials will also recognize students who achieved a 4.0 grade point average and their parents.
Friday's commencement exercises were extra special for Principal Todd Wilson. One of the 198 graduates was his daughter, Ashley.
Wilson is one of five school officials with a son or daughter in the class. The others: athletic director Travis Flesner, teachers Michelle Tatar and Lisa Martin and school board member Tony McLain.
The four staffers served as marshals, escorting the graduates on and off the football field. And they and McLain got to present their children with their diplomas.
Today, the school will host its late-morning ceremony, preceded by a brunch for its 27 graduates and their guests.
"We used to hold it in the evening," Principal Linda Harris said.
However, it was moved up in the day four years ago partly to accommodate the schedule of a school official, who had a key role in the event, and partly because the gym was much cooler in the morning.
"Our families liked it so much we started a new tradition," Harris said.
As in the past, graduates will be able to take home a special video of the event — featuring speeches by valedictorian Madeline Decker and salutatorian Jenna Conway — and each class member's picture, favorite Bible verse or quote and school memory.
The school isn't veering from its traditional formal ceremony Sunday.
"We always try to make it first-class for our students," Principal Phil Morrison said.
Like Urbana, the school doesn't have a valedictorian or salutatorian. Instead, officials will recognize the top 10 percent in the 108-member class, and senior Matt Clark will give the keynote address.
"It's actually really nice," Morrison said of the tradition of letting seniors compete to give the night's speech. "You might get a student, who would've been valedictorian or salutatorian, who really doesn't want to do that. This gives every student the opportunity to do that. In my 15 years here, we've always ended up with a really good speech."
If you missed the Blue Devils' graduation on May 18, you can still catch all of the action — and a Class of 2014 video — at bismarck.k12.il.us.
It's the second year the school provided a live webcast of the event, allowing far-away friends and family to watch the 73 graduates on their special day.
"Last year, we were shocked by how many people viewed the ceremony, not necessarily live but at a later time," said Principal Brent Rademacher, who credit audio-visual teacher Erik Cisney with providing the video footage. "We've had very positive remarks and a lot of thank yous from military families that are stationed oversees to family members in Alaska that are able to be included in the moment. We feel like it's just a unique and neat service we can provide our community."
Away they go ...
The upcoming high school commencement calendar:
11 a.m. in the school gym
3 p.m. at Krannert's Tryon Festival Theatre
7 p.m. at the high school
2 p.m. in the high school gym
2 p.m. at the Unity Junior High gym (Rocket Center)
2 p.m. at the Fisher Junior/Senior High gym
3 p.m. at the high school
3 p.m. at the Oakwood Grade School gym
5 p.m. at the Villa Grove High's big gym
7 p.m. in Krannert's Foellinger Great Hall
7 p.m. in Krannert's Foellinger Great Hall
11 a.m. at Urbana High's McKinley Field (athletic complex). Rain location is the Urbana Middle School gym.
7 p.m. at the Tuscola High's gym.