440 Pioneer High School grads receive diplomas in joyful, first-of-its-kind commencement

By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor

The Pioneer High School Class of 2020 could never have predicted at the start of the year what graduation would be like at the end.

COVID-19 caused an abrupt end to in-person classes in March, and a virtual commencement ceremony in June.

Before families gathered to watch the recorded 52nd annual commencement ceremony, graduates formed a procession of cars to pick up their diplomas through the window.

They arrived in bedazzled cars with dogs on their laps, proud parents, grandparents, siblings and friends in the backseat, and a cheering line of staff and teachers on the side.

One student musician played his drums on the back of a pickup truck.

No, it was not traditional. But they made the most of it, and judging by their smiles, it was an occasion to remember.

In his virtual address, Principal Tracey Lowder said the 440 students have been a hard-working, talented group and he is proud to have been part of their educational journey.

“The 2019-2020 school year has been difficult for many of us in so many ways, but through hardship and pain, comes strength,” he said. “This graduation ceremony is a demonstration of that strength as the culmination of years of hard work; the actualization of goals attained and the acknowledgement of successes achieved are being celebrated in nontraditional methods throughout the country.  The great news graduates, is that you’ve made it. This is your moment. Enjoy it.”

Principal Tracey Lowder hands out a diploma on June 19, 2020.

Superintendent Jeanice Swift said she honors the graduates’ individual stories and challenges they have overcome.

“As we look around us in this world today – June 2020 – we are constantly reminded with every disturbing, heartbreaking, and shocking headline,
that we have not achieved progress we had hoped toward equality, truth, and social justice. We are not the America of Dr. King’s dreams.”

She said we are plagued by a COVID-19 public health crisis that disproportionately impacts African Americans, and lays bare stark, long-existing, worsening inequities among us.

“As we face these immense challenges in our world just now
including a global climate crisis that threatens our very existence, we know it is more true today than it has ever been – we need you.

Four students—Patrick Good, Soorya Janakiraman, Riya Katial, and Robert (Mac) VanRenterghem—spoke to their classmates.

Riya Katial said this may not have been the most traditional senior year, but as we’ve heard many times, it is one for the history books.

Riya Katial is one of four students who addressed her classmates virtually.

“At this moment, the world is riddled with the fear and uncertainty that comes with living in a global pandemic,” Riya said. “But despite it all, we managed to graduate.”

She recalled being among a class of wide-eyed freshman standing in the back of all sporting events, followed by years of laughter, heartbreak, and growth all while fighting for a better future and climbing to the front of the bleachers.

“However, even with our 2020 vision, we never could have seen this as our senior year,” she said. “The world is now a blank slate and we have a front-row seat to the new world. It is our time to go onto the field to change the game and its rules. Whether it is global climate change, the security of those in our communities, or the general health of all those we care about, we have the power to use this apocalyptic blank slate as a kickoff to the new goal.”

Noting the things the class was forced to give up due to the pandemic, she noted the positive, selfless trade-offs.

“Everything we have done has made a difference,” she said. “And our time has just begun.”

Class President Soorya Janakiraman noted that being a Pioneer High School Pioneer always felt a little like “Little House on the Prairie.”

Now it’s taken on a whole new meaning, she said, referring to the uncertainty of the times.

Still, she said, the class has risen to the challenge.

“If we’re the future, it’s a bright future,” she said, before encouraging the class to stay bold; stay extraordinary.

Mac VanRenerghem said one of his favorite memories is taking a fifth-grade field trip to a Pioneer High School assembly, and thinking the freshmen looked like full-grown men with actual mustaches.

Seven years later, he says those freshmen roaming the halls of Pioneer do not in fact sport genuine mustaches.

“Your view of things can change, and change drastically over time,” he said. “Right now as the class of 2020, it’s hard not to focus on the negatives— the things we will leave without.”

But he said in time, he expects the class will be able to see all they have gained from this experience, including an appreciation for human interaction, and the willingness to sacrifice and take action when needed.

“Our future is that bright,” said Mac, explaining why he was putting on his shades at the conclusion of his talk.

Noting the many changes he’s seen during his four years at Pioneer,  Patrick Good said his classmates have learned the meaning of being bold, extraordinary, and a Pioneer.

Patrick Good was one of four students who talked to classmates virtually.

“If there’s anything I took away from my time being at Pioneer, it’s definitely that Pioneers must persevere,” he said.

“As a senior class, we should look at what we have to go through, persevere through, and fight through to be successful because that’s what truly successful people do.”

Lowder honored this year’s retirees: Joan Bruggers (social studies); Lori DiVirgillio (math); Percolia (Francine) Jarmond (teacher consultant); and Deb Stephens (math).

He then concluded his talk with words to the Class 2020:
“How proud we are of the success that you have made with the opportunities that you were offered,” said Lowder. “Congratulations once again. And welcome to the ranks of the Pioneer High School alumni.

“Be bold. Be extraordinary. And always and forever be Pioneers.”

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