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BEHIND THE SCENES: DSBN reverses decision on grad dates

Niagara-on-the-Lake Local's Mike Balsom takes us behind the scenes

In each “Behind the Scenes” segment, Village Media's Scott Sexsmith sits down with one of our local journalists to talk about the story behind the story.

These interviews are designed to help you better understand how our community-based reporters gather the information that lands in your local news feed. You can find more Behind the Scenes from reporter across Ontario here

Today's spotlight is on notllocal.com's Mike Balsom, whose story 'DSBN reverses decision on grad dates' was published on Feb. 7.

Here is the original story if you need to catch up:‚Äč

Grade 12 students at DSBN secondary schools rejoiced Friday when news broke that plans to move graduation ceremonies to early June were officially being reversed. 

The principals at Laura Secord and A.N. Myer Secondary Schools and Eden High School, as well as the other 13 DSBN secondary schools, informed grads about the reversal near the end of the day last Friday. An email was also sent home to parent and guardian contacts. 

Samantha Fretz, a member of Laura Secord’s class of 2024, is pleased that she will cross the stage after writing her last high school exams, not before. 

“I am happy that graduation has been moved back to after exams,’ says Fretz. “It will feel more like a graduation and we won’t have to go back to school after. When we heard the news about the date change in the auditorium, the crowd erupted with clapping and everyone was so excited that our voices were heard.” 

Fellow graduate Mackenzie Overweg says she could not be more pleased. 

“It was a feeling of joy, accomplishment, and gratitude knowing that our voices were heard,” Overweg tells The Local via email. “I think as a whole community we are all so grateful to have graduation moved back, making it feel more natural and on a more realistic timeline.”

For Ayla Jamal of St. Davids, a classmate of Overweg’s and Fretz’s, hearing the news from principal Helena Tritchew was a welcome way to start her final semester of high school. 

“We were all gearing up and waiting for this moment,” Jamal told The Local. “It was a good conversation. She said the DSBN took the student voice into consideration and changed the grad date back.  It was a big deal. It felt like a triumph for us.”

Last fall the public school board announced that graduation dates at all of their high schools would be moved from after final exams to some time between May 21 and June 14, with specific dates to be chosen by each school. They also had the added option of pushing the ceremony to the following fall. 

The original decision to move the date was earlier explained by the DSBN as necessary for operational concerns and to increase inclusion. 

With school enrolment increasing, Superintendent of Curriculum and Student Achievement Ann Gilmore told The Local in December that finding venues to accommodate large numbers of attendees was becoming more difficult. And she added that it was also time for graduation to be redefined as a celebration of each student’s journey and accomplishments leading up to Grade 12 to create a sense of belonging for everyone.

An online petition begun by Eden High School students Olivia Gillespie and Manuella Jarrin quickly gained steam and captured the attention of the press, including the NOTL Local. To date it has been signed by almost 5,000 people.

“I’m surprised it took so long,” Gillespie says. “It was a long, long process. We had individual meetings and I made a presentation to the board. After that there were no follow-up emails from them. We had to reach out to them again.”

Gillespie insists that the board wasn’t taking her efforts seriously until articles started appearing in newspapers and the petition drew the attention of CHCH News.

“That was frustrating, because the main people that read those papers and watch the news are our parents,” she explains. “It seemed like until parents began speaking out about it, then they started hearing what we were saying.”

“I think it was largely because of the bad press they got,” agrees Jamal about the DSBN’s reversal. “They realized they had made the wrong move because of the amount of negative feedback they were getting. I wish they hadn’t waited so long, I wish they had listened to the initial student voice that was so strong.”

Another DSBN Superintendent of Curriculum and Student Achievement, Leeane Smith, insists that the main factor in the reversal was the student voice. 

“They came forward loud and clear,” Smith says. “They were consistent and specific in that they wanted their graduation celebration after exams. We heard that and we feel that we were able to honour that.”

Smith adds that awards will be given out at each school’s graduation, including awards for students who earn top marks in each subject. 

“Any further review of graduation timelines would include input from students and their families before a decision is made,” Smith said when asked if the DSBN might revisit changing grad dates for the 2024-2025 school year. 

Though Jamal and Gillispie will both be attending post-secondary institutions next year, they say they would consider getting involved again if news of another change in graduation dates is put forth by the board. 

“I have friends who are in Grade 11 right now,” Jamal says. “I would discuss it with them. I know how much it upset me this year. It would certainty confuse me if they did this again next year after seeing how students reacted this year.”

And the whole incident has Gillespie reconsidering her post-secondary plans. 

“I was considering going to Brock University for Psychology,” says Gillespie. “But a lot of people have reached out to me to encourage me to do something where I can advocate for groups or to study administration so I can make change from the inside.”

Laura Secord’s new graduation date is Thursday, June 27. The Class of 2024 at both Eden and A.N. Myer Secondary School will cross the stage one day earlier on June 26.