Parkway moves North, Central graduations

Beth Feldman, president of the Parkway school board, talks with Rabbis Mike Rovinsky (left) and Yitz Staum after a meeting Sept. 13, 2017 at the district administration offices. 

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

The Parkway Board of Education voted Sept. 13 to move commencement ceremonies for its North and Central high schools to a Tuesday and Thursday night, respectively.

The school district had encountered criticism and a petition effort after announcing that all Parkway graduations would be held on Saturday, May 19, a day when some observant Jewish students would not be able to participate because of Shabbat restrictions. That Saturday also marks the start of Shavuot, a holiday on which some observant Jews also would not drive.

Now, all graduations will be held at the St. Charles Family Arena, but over three different days: North students will graduate Tuesday, May 15; Central on Thursday, May 17; and South and West as originally scheduled Saturday, May 19.

The Sept. 13 meeting followed a meeting the week before, when the board met to consider a proposal that would have moved the graduation date for Parkway Central to a weeknight, but leave the other three scheduled for a Saturday. But the board decided to table the proposal after hearing concerns during the public comment portion of the meeting, Feldman said. 

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Jewish students attend all four Parkway high schools, but the district does not track the number of students who identify with particular religions. More than 40 students at North are members of the Jewish Student Union club, according to the director of the organization. At Central, 70 students are in the club. Far fewer are members at West and South.

For the 2016-2017 school year, North and Central held commencement on weeknights. South and West commencements took place on Friday and Saturday nights.

Board President Beth Feldman said the controversy has “been a teachable moment for us, and it’s given us some different ways to look at things.”

Before the vote, Feldman offered a public apology on behalf of the board.

“By scheduling our four high school graduations on Shabbat and erev Shavuot, we made it impossible for some of our seniors to attend their own graduation,” said Feldman, whose remarks were published in last week’s Jewish Light. “In short, we blew it.  And we are sorry, profoundly so, that our insensitivity caused anyone discomfort or any feelings of not belonging.” 

Laura Schapiro, whose daughter Rina Gersten attends Central and would not have been able to participate in a Saturday graduation, said she thought Feldman “did a good job at this meeting and last meeting letting us know” what the board was thinking. 

“I think they realized they made a mistake, and they listened to us, so I’m glad about that,” she said. 

The district had originally changed graduation dates because it  decided to relocate ceremonies from Queeny Park to the  Family Arena, which district leaders described as a larger, more comfortable venue that had additional handicapped parking and was easier for people to access. But renting the arena on four days as had been done at Queeny would have been “cost-prohibitive,” Feldman said then.

According to district documents, renting Queeny for Parkway graduations would cost about $30,000; renting the Family Arena for one day would have cost about $50,000 if all of the graduations were held on the same day. 

Feldman said the district was able to get a special rate from the arena because of the scheduling issue and that renting out the space for an additional day would cost the district an additional $10,000. 

At the Sept. 13 meeting, the board the board stipulated that the cost for graduations on three days would not exceed $72,000. She emphasized that this was only a one-year agreement with the Family Arena and that the board could consider different graduation dates for 2019. 

“I’m really pleased that they made the right decision for two of the schools,” said Cyndee Levy, whose daughter Adina attends Central and would not have been able to participate. “I hope that they will take into consideration moving all of the graduations off of Saturday in the future, because I think our Jewish community will continue to expand and grow.”