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Dallas School Pulls Off One Of The Nation's First In-Person Graduations, Despite COVID-19

A small group of Conrad High School seniors in Dallas recently celebrated one of the first in-person graduations in the country. It almost didn’t happen because of COVID-19. 

The superintendent said all Dallas graduations this year would be virtual, but he gave small groups some autonomy. The high schoolers, who also earned their two-year college degrees, took advantage of the opportunity.

Cars started lining up at 5 p.m. for the 6 p.m. Friday ceremony. It was in the back parking lot of Emmett Conrad High School in Dallas’ Vickery Meadows neighborhood. Yennifer Martinez, an eighteen year-old Collegiate Academy senior, popped her head out of the sunroof of her dad’s balloon-festooned SUV. She said students were asked a week ago if they wanted this.

“It’s actually really weird and happy,” Yennifer said. “Even though they’re doing something small for us, it’s something we worked hard for.”

It's weird because COVID-19 had already ended or seriously altered every big in-person graduation across North Texas, if not the world. Martinez and her classmates did work hard, according to history teacher Patricia Fitzwater, who said she taught every one of the 88 seniors.  

“The early college academies for Dallas ISD are focused on students who are typically underrepresented in college, first-time college goers,” Fitzwater said. "So it’s a really big deal for these students to have not only their high school diploma, but also their associate degree. It’s a huge deal.” 

Another huge deal for every graduate is wearing the cap and gown. Volunteers hand them out to every senior as each car pulls up.

“Heyyyy! Who we got, what we go, what we got? I need your height...five-eight, five-one. Hold on, one moment.”  

With microphone in hand, assistant principal Vivian Chandler Fairley admired her collegiate academy graduates.

“You guys have received your cap and gown and you look marvelous in that thunder duck purple,” Fairley said.

Purple is the color of Richland College. Everyone in the high school graduating class also earned the maximum 60 hours from the Dallas college while completing high school requirements. With their associate degree, graduates are already two years toward a four year college diploma.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Marcela Catalan in her Thunder Duck purple cap and gown. The Collegiate Academy graduate has been accepted to Texas Woman's University in the fall.

“Well, we got more credits and we’re ready for college already,” said Marcela Catalan.

The Collegiate Academy graduate will enter Texas Woman’s University this fall pursuing a degree in graphic arts. She’s not sure yet if classes will be online or in-person.

Back in the parking lot, the ritual of reading every graduate’s name out loud is about to begin. Conrad Principal Temesghen Asmerom said these young adults deserve more than this.

“When everybody was enjoying Thanksgiving they were taking courses,” said Asmerom. “When people were going for Christmas vacation, they were in Christmas classes. So this is a big accomplishment and that’s why we’re going out of our way to give them an experience of college graduation because they deserve a celebration.”

Then, Asmerom warmed up the crowd. Every graduate seemed to have at least two family members close by cheering and honking their horns.  

“Graduating class, family members, let’s give it up for the class of 2020!” said Asmerom.

As the staff prepared to read the list of Collegiate Academy grads, assistant principal Fairley reminded the hundreds attending of the rules.   

“Remember,” Fairley said, “you signed an agreement saying that we would practice social distancing and you would remain near your  car.”

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
It was a nice, small crowd of graduates and celebrants for Dallas ISD's Conrad High School Collegiate Academy seniors last Friday evening.

All 88 names were read. Graduates picked up their diplomas June 10. School leaders said there’s something special in store for these young adults when they show, but for now they’re keeping their plans a secret.  

Got a tip? Email Reporter Bill Zeeble at . You can follow him on Twitter @bzeeble.

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Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.