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Middle school graduations: momentous or overblown?

My first year teaching in the South Bronx, I helped chaperone my 8th graders’ “prom.” I was a little surprised to hear them calling it that – for me, the prom conjures up memories of glamorous dresses and rented tuxes, fancy dinners with friends, posh locations – and high school. But my girls bought expensive gowns, the boys showed up in sparkling new suits, and we rented a space at Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe, a somewhat pricey club and restaurant in the area. It was one of the strangest evenings of my life: fun, at times, as kids showed off their spiffy clothes and posed for photographs; stressful, as they flaunted their sexuality on the dancefloor and I tried to figure out when to draw the line; and permeated by a sad knowledge that for many of the students, this was the only prom they would attend.

Much of the pomp and circumstance that used to be reserved for high school graduation ceremonies and related events like the prom now surrounds graduation from middle school, reflecting the reality that many children never graduate from high school. But educators and parents in some communities are trying to balance the desire to honor a rite of passage with the need to send a message of high expectations: that students will go on to complete high school, and that’s when they should throw the really big party. They have toned down 8th grade ceremonies accordingly.

The next middle school where I worked took that scaled-back approach to 8th grade graduation. Our students wore caps and gowns, a small yearbook was produced, the class took a senior trip to a nearby amusement park, and we held a low-key senior formal. We changed the language around these events, calling graduation a “Moving Up” ceremony and the “prom” merely a “dance” or a “formal.” We tried to keep the focus on getting into and graduating from an excellent high school – and then continuing on to college.

Teachers, how does your school handle middle school graduation? Parents, what do you think is appropriate? Students, how do you want to celebrate this milestone? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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