For 90 carefully dressed and reasonably solemn fifth-graders in Rockville, the passage from elementary school began Monday evening at 5:30 when they marched into an auditorium overflowing with parents, balloons and the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.”
For nearly an hour and a half, they sat — skinny necks leaning from buttoned collars and little hands wringing satin skirts — through two adult speakers, a slide show of their elementary years and remarks by four classmates. They walked up one by one to accept signed certificates, pausing for a grip-and-grin shot with their teacher in front of a professional photographer.
It was a touching end-of-school ceremony in June. But try not to use the G word.
“We don’t call it graduation. We call it fifth-grade promotion,” said Principal Wilma Holmes, standing in the multipurpose room of Flower Valley Elementary School as parents fanned themselves with programs adorned with mortarboards and diplomas.
Each year at this time, thousands of younger-than-high-school students in the area celebrate what some critics — and maybe a few restless parents — call graduation inflation, the growth of full-fledged processional ceremonies to mark the end of elementary school.
Although principals say they try to avoid the overt trappings of high school and college ceremonies, graduation vendors say grade schools are increasingly a growth market.
“It’s the fastest growing area of our business,” said Richard Spear, owner of American Cap and Gown in New Jersey. Sales of the smallest caps and the shortest gowns to elementary schools and kindergartens account for nearly half of his nearly $1 million in annual revenue, he said.
“We see it grow when the economy is bad,” Spear said. “In hard times, people like to celebrate good things. We hear that from administrators.”
Each year at this time, educators say they seek a balance between celebrating a milestone and giving their students the impression that the hard work is over.
“I’m trying to walk the middle of the road,” Holmes said. “It’s important that the student be recognized, but I don’t want them to think finishing elementary school is the be-all and end-all.”
Her school’s ceremony is scaled down from years that featured more speakers and sometimes a dinner afterward. She has encouraged the children not to dress too elaborately and, given the recent heat, allowed boys to wear short pants.
“This is really something,” said Esu Ma’at, 40, a Flower Valley father who had crept outside of the crowded auditorium to get a breath of air halfway through the proceedings. “When I finished fifth grade [in New York City], we didn’t do anything.”
Coming to see his daughter HuSia (gleaming white dress, pink ribbons woven into her hair) was Ma’at’s second promotion ceremony of the season. “My nephew just had his kindergarten graduation,” he said.
Almost every elementary school in the Washington area holds some kind of promotion ceremony. The events range from simple daytime assemblies to pizza parties to elaborate evenings with marches and choral music.
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) spoke at a sixth-grade promotion ceremony for Concord Elementary in Forestville last week. This Sunday, students at Francis Scott Key in Arlington County will hear from a representative of the Spanish Embassy at their gathering, in honor of their work in a Spanish immersion program.
“We try to keep it low key but festive,” said Gloria McCoy, principal of Glenridge Elementary in Landover Hills. Her graduates will walk in under a balloon arch and hear a commencement address from an executive from Nestle, a corporate donor to the school.
Marking the end of the starter years can be as important as a high school or even college ceremony to families that don’t have a tradition of academic progress, said Aara Davis-Jones, principal of Silver Spring’s Georgian Forest Elementary. At her school, one of Montgomery County’s poorest, with 75 percent of pupils on free or reduced-cost meals, many parents are recent immigrants who are thrilled to see their children with a certificate in hand.
“This is a huge achievement for our families; there are lots of tears of joy in our audience,” Davis-Jones said. “The kids all buy new outfits. The girls have heels on. Some of the them try a little lip gloss for the first time. It looks just like a high school graduation.”
That can be the problem, according to some who worry that blurring the distinction between interim achievements and final diplomas will send the wrong message.
“We absolutely want to honor these important milestones, but weighting them all the same can send a message of mission accomplished,” said Mike Feinberg, co-founder of the KIPP schools, a string of nearly 100 charter schools around the country.
When Feinberg was a new teacher in a Houston elementary school, he was so disturbed by the over-the-top nature of the fifth-grade promotion ceremony that he showed up in torn shorts and shoeless.
“I’m so proud of you. You’ve worked so hard. But if you want me to dress up, you’ve got to graduate from high school,” he recalled telling the students. “And in a few years, I started getting e-mails from them saying ‘You better get your tux ready.’ ”
Feinberg would probably have approved of the Flower Valley program, which constantly reiterated how much the teachers expected of the students in grades to come. The guest speaker was the principal of Rockville’s Wood Middle School, who sought to reassure them about unknowns ahead. (“No, we don’t put new students in lockers,” she said.)
Similarly, at Bethesda Elementary, the past president of the Student Government Association returns to give his once-and-future classmates a report from sixth grade.
Although some parents might steal quick glimpses of their cellphones during the ceremonies, others said they were surprised by how moving it was to say goodbye to the simplest years of schooling.
Stacey Gurian of Takoma Park said she still has a photo above her desk of her daughter’s 2000 promotion from Piney Branch Elementary. It was a “clap-out” ceremony, which is popular in several area schools. Departing students march through the halls, starting in the kindergarten wing. As they pass each classroom, the pupils come out and fall in line, applauding the fifth-graders as they go. By the end, the entire student body is behind them, cheering and clapping as the oldest kids head out the front doors.
“You talk to any parent, we still get choked up thinking about it,” said Gurian, who ranks that promotion ceremony as more meaningful than her daughter’s subsequent high school graduation and on par with her recent commencement at Macalester College in Minnesota.
“The college one was as good but only because of the bagpipers,” she said.