Yea or Nay – Graduation Ceremonies at GWCC

After Sunday we’ll be finished with graduation ceremonies (BTW … Congrats Class of 2019!) How did it go and should we hold graduation ceremonies at the Georgia World Congress Center again next year?

Marlon Walker wrote in the AJC that in October of last year, parents were reeling over having graduation at the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC) a week after school ended. However, Walker reported, it ended up being Much Ado About Nothing.

Is that right?

Through the class of ’16 various DeKalb high schools used governmental buildings, arenas and churches to hold graduation ceremonies. Many high schools were challenged with the capacity to find and pay for a venue. The school district was also allegedly challenged by the AFL-CIO on the holding of school district graduation ceremonies in religious facilities.

For the class of ’17, DeKalb Schools sought out an equitable solution for graduation ceremonies. For the low-low price of $300K+, they decided that the most cost effective, accessible and equitable solution would be the GWCC.

Here is some of the constructive feedback I have received.

Graduation was scheduled a week after the last day of school. Plenty of parents and students couldn’t make it or had to change Summer plans.

DeKalb Schools charged seniors $35 for these graduation ceremonies. It’s hard to see where all that money went.

Parents paid $15 park or more if it was during an ATL United game.

Students expected part of their $35 to go towards an air conditioned bus. However, many students arrived at their school 4 hours before the ceremony started only to drive in full regalia to the GWCC in a non air conditioned bus.

To quote a parent,

The “best” part was that after the ceremony, we were herded to an outdoor plaza to meet our graduates. After 20 minutes of photos and talking, security personnel that we paid for actually went around and turned on SIRENS and used bullhorns to tell us to leave. They were constantly running the sirens and yelling at us on the bullhorns for the rest of the time. Just super respectful to families. It was mortifying for our out of town guests and humiliating. And the next group had not even STARTED their ceremony, so there was no chance of a conflict.

What are your thoughts about holding graduation at the GWCC?


Graduation Schedule – DeKalb Schools Class of 2019
November 2, 2018 – Currently the school district is planning on having graduation ceremonies in the middle of the Summer. That’s understandably not going over very well with the parents. Here’s the current schedule for 2019 graduation ceremonies.

Class of 2018 Graduation Ceremonies Schedule
November 17, 2017 – All high school graduations will be held during the week of May 21-26, 2018 at the Georgia World Congress Center. This is the second year to have graduation ceremonies at the GWCC. Last year the ceremonies were on time, air conditioned, streamed online with great production value … and it better be for $300K.

My Graduation Ceremony – Open Letter To DCSD
May 10, 2017 – Georgia Wescott’s Open Letter to the DeKalb County School District with her thoughts about the venue selected by the senior administration without input from the local CCHS community.

Class of 2017 Graduation Ceremonies Schedule
April 13, 2017 – Dr. Green created a District Graduation Task Force to begin looking at venues, available dates and costs for specific locations to house district ceremonies.

Graduation Schedule – DeKalb Schools Class of 2017
April 13, 2017 – Dr. Green created a District Graduation Task Force to begin looking at venues, available dates and costs for specific locations to house district ceremonies.

DeKalb Schools ESPLOST

All Graduation Ceremonies At Georgia World Congress Center
October 11, 2016 – All DeKalb County high school graduations will be held during the week of May 22-27, 2017. Here is the school schedule.

30 responses to “Yea or Nay – Graduation Ceremonies at GWCC

  1. Colleen Rowland

    The ceremony was nice, but impersonal being in such a large space. Acoustics very poor. We experienced the GCCC employees asking folks to move along, but for what? The next graduation wouldn’t let out til 2:30 or so, so the urge seemed unnecessary.

    If they can get they know they can secure the last week of school, it’s a decent option, minus tbe cost.

  2. Karen Leonard’

    NAY – Attended last year’s CCHS graduation ceremony there. It was difficult to get to, very impersonal with poor sound and facilities . Photography was awful. Definitely not an occasion to enjoy but endure and not a fitting end to a well earned high school graduation. Have a student graduating. 2020 dreading it already.

  3. Stan Jester

    @Karen. Where would you recommend CCHS had graduation ceremonies? The stadium has quite a few drawbacks GWCC doesn’t have. We have to contend with the weather, it doesn’t seat as many people, not ver elderly accessible, no streaming and film crew like the GWCC … to name a few issues.

  4. Lisa Victory

    For graduations, y’all should inquire about using Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center. That’s where my son’s North Springs High School graduation was held. There was plenty of parking, hotels for out of town guests, restaurants nearby. The venue wasn’t so huge that it felt half empty, but there were plenty of seats for everyone. Idk the cost or availability, but it was enjoyable, and we had no bullhorns or sirens urging us to exit the property, even tho there was another graduation ceremony following ours.

  5. NAY

    Stan, the GWCC is a step too far in trying to be able to accommodate every single human who might want to attend graduation. That facility was a concrete warehouse that could hold 7000. It was cavernous and impersonal and most definitely did not feel like a ceremony meant to honor this specific school and their own personality. Kids felt like they graduated from DeKalb Schools complex, not the specific school they had attended for the past 4 years.

    In metro Atlanta, I’m sure there are other places suitable as long as you plan ahead, a skill that DCSD doesn’t seem to have. The basketball arena at GSU was available this year during the proper week. The Cobb Energy Center would be more intimate. GAC has a great venue that even Pius rents out for their graduation. And someone else suggested the auditorium at the central office on Mtn Industrial.

    Really, anything with stadium or tiered seating because once you are 20 rows back at GWCC, you can’t see anything. And the screens are a nice compensation for not being able to see anything live, but, honestly, I didn’t wait 12 years to watch my kid on TV. And GWCC isn’t easy for elderly, either. Parking is a long walk, the “holding” area before the ceremony didn’t have enough seats for grandparents who can’t stand for an hour and a half, you had to rush in for seats and some people held entire rows, and the plaza where the after-ceremony is held is not easily accessible for disabled or elderly. I won’t even go into the riot-dispersing feeling of the bullhorn and siren noises. The room where they held graduation is so huge that people just dispensed with all manners and were walking around on their phones, using air horns, and leaving in the middle of the ceremony. I’ll also make the point that GWCC wouldn’t seem like the perfect space if it rained. Because the prescripted plan is to herd people outside to the plaza because the lobby is for the next waiting crowd, if it rains, all after-ceremony pictures and hugs are outside and, essentially, not taking place.

    I stand by the suggestion I proposed when the whole 2019 graduation date debacle happened – DeKalb Schools needs to give schools first right of refusal. See which schools are willing to own their own ceremony and let them do their own. But then let the county help those schools that either don’t want to plan their own or who like how the impersonal graduation conveyor belt feels.

  6. Also, Stan, I would also appreciate your help figuring out all of the money involved with centralizing graduation. My understanding is that seniors county-wide were charged $35 (this is within their wide-ranging “senior dues” that are vastly different at each school) to cover graduation. For 5000 grads, this is $175,000. The contract for GWCC was $55,000. The school buses that transported the kids were owned by DeKalb already. The stage decorations were plants, lighting, and a projection with the school name on it. Where did the rest of that $120,000 go? To the police officers who ran us off the plaza after 30 minutes?

  7. William Johnson

    Having just attended my second graduation exercise at GWCC, the first one in 2017, I can only say it is a pretty horrible experience. My main objection is that the acoustics are terrible. One can hardly understand a word that is spoken. The sight lines are awful. It has the feeling of a cattle drive. I would never have attended the second one, except that it is the grandparents obligation and children and grandchildren would not understand if we didn’t show up.

  8. I first taught in Michigan and never heard of a school not having a facility big enough for graduation. Everyone knows when building a high school that it will have a graduation ceremony so schools should all have appropriate facilities. Our high school doesn’t have a room that can hold the entire student body even. 🙁
    Since the appropriate adaptations and changes will never take place (at least in the foreseeable future), the GWCC solution is ok. The venue is pretty bad due to the impersonal factor, sight-lines, sound,parking, walking (such a loooong walk to the venue). A better solution, however, I don’t have besides making sure each school has a very large gym.

  9. Leah Marques

    How is it hard to see where the $35 each senior had to pay went? Why isn’t that public record or a budget line for the DeKalb Schools budget?

  10. Infinite Energy Arena would be far superior to GWCC if we could get it. There are public transit options to get there, though granted it’s not as easy as taking the MARTA train. It’s hardly a further drive than GWCC, and it’s in a city that is not trying to annex DCSD land.

  11. Amy T is on target! Follow the money!!

    The proposed FY20 budget includes a line item called “District Graduation” for $350,000.

    FY19 budget was $350,000.
    FY18 actuals were $321,550.

    Amy T calculated $35 per graduate * 5000 graduates = $175,000 in graduation funds paid for by graduates.

    So the real cost must be $350,000 + $175,000 = $525,000, or MORE THAN HALF A MILLION DOLLARS FOR GRADUATION!

    Follow the money. If the contract with GWCC is only $55,000, then there’s a whole lot more money going somewhere. Maybe sirens and bullhorns are expensive.

  12. I was a class sponsor several years ago and we took graduation to what is now called the Infinite Energy Center. There just isn’t room in DeKalb unless we limit graduates to 8-10 guests… honestly not a bad thing in my opinion. I was fussed at by parents for taking is out of DeKalb, but the only other option we had (and my preference) was Panthersville Stadium. It would have cost the class $500 to host graduation there. Having been to the ceremonies at GWCC, I can say they were ok. Acustics were certainly better than when we had them at the Dome. My biggest complaint is still timing. Last year, school was in session when my school’s ceremony was, so many faculty members couldn’t go, and siblings missed instruction to attend. This year, many faculty were already out of town for various reasons including reading AP exams. That’s not fair to the students. We need to figure out the timing in addition to the location.

  13. DekalbBein'Dekalb

    1. There are places in the North Metro area, but given the tenor of the central office I’m sure they can’t abide in the southern Dekalb schools having to go north. I agree with the people saying either Infinite Energy or Cobb. Didn’t Sandy Springs just finish a performing arts center?
    2. I also agree with people saying give it back to the schools. We had more than 320 graduates. By my math that’s over $11k (given the $35 going to the county). Shouldn’t you be able to rent a place and have that wonderful school bus transportation covered for $11k? If not I’d pay $50 to avoid the experience of the GWCC.
    3. The GWCC was a complete cluster. Tried to turn in to drop people in the turn around area but it was packed with people. Had to park where the signage was less than adequate. Fortunately we just followed the masses. And kept going. And going. Then got there to find hard folding chairs on concrete. It was an assembly line graduation.
    4. I see no issue in limiting people to 6 per family, esp if video is available. Hell, we had to watch the screens anyway and we were there.
    5. Personally enjoyed the two handshakes from Green. Black kids got one, white kids got the other. But no, there’s no racism there.
    6. And Stan, how about a tie next year? You looked woefully underdressed.
    7. Oh – the AJC writer is a tool. What parent is going to skip his/her kid’s graduation to make a point? Like we’d boycott our kid’s moment.

  14. Stan Jester

    My wife doesn’t let me wear ties. Ties don’t look right on me.

  15. Despite messing up summer plans on our end too, we tend to agree with the majority that the experience was unpleasant and impersonal. We felt like cattle being herded thru being #3 of 4 ceremonies that day. We had planned on taking Marta down because we hate driving downtown, but when the trains broke down somewhere between Chamblee and Doraville stations, we were forced to get back in our car and drive down, pay the parking fee and walk around the entire facility, with little directions on where to go (almost getting ushered into a SCAD event). We ended up sitting behind one of the columns because there would be empty rows where a single person would be saving the row for others, and the areas of no visibility were all that were left by the time we got into the room. If it weren’t for the projection screens, we would not have seen our daughter graduate, which was disappointing to have to watch on TV vs seeing it with our own eyes. On top of it all, none of our family members outside of myself, my husband and son, were willing to drive downtown on a Friday afternoon to come see our daughter graduate, stating that it was too far, too much for them to try to do for such a short window of time. Although it was great for them to be able to watch the live-stream, its still not the same as being able to be there to support them in person.
    Afterwards, we left just as they started bringing out the sirens and bullhorns, since it was too hot to stand out in the direct sun (the few shaded areas were packed), but I would have been even more upset if we were further “herded” out again. The whole process felt like a machine, pumping thru graduates as fast as it could. Not to mention, the fact Dekalb is paying all of this money to another county! As big as Dekalb is, it should have its own facilities for these types of things, so that we’re spending money in our own county. This would have also prevented the “scheduling conflict” that occurred with MomoCon.
    My husband and I are both graduates of Dekalb County and we did our graduation in the North Dekalb Stadium. Our “weather alternative” was performing the ceremony in the gym of our school. We were limited to immediate family and/or x number of guests, in order to facilitate everyone. We didn’t see anything wrong with this method and actually preferred it, as it was more intimate and felt more like what a high school graduation should be. Bigger is not necessarily better!
    We have another one coming up for graduation in 2021 and I’m dreading having to go thru this again. We’re hoping Dekalb will rethink their processes.

  16. @KatW – I agree with your concerns about GWCC and in general it is a lousy venue for a DCSD graduation. You mentioned you left pretty quickly afterwards because it was too hot to be outside and all the shade areas were packed. You then mentioned using North DeKalb Stadium – last week was unsafely hot. Can you imagine being in the stadium last week? I suspect there would have been some medical emergencies.

    Since we can’t control the weather, I would like to know if folks would have chosen a stadium over GWCC last week?

  17. Honestly, I still would have taken the heat at the stadium over all of the other inconveniences at GWCC. And again, if weather was an issue (even being too hot), there’s always the school gym.

    I think people would just be upset that they can’t invite 20+ family members to come celebrate. That’s what after-parties are for!

  18. @AB, I would have picked a mid-morning ceremony at North DeKalb over GWCC, yes. It would have been more personal, easier to get to, free to park, not as costly to run it, it wouldn’t have been a 9-hour day for my graduate, and the handicapped and elderly could have sat field level and not had to walk so far and up so many steps. Then we could have gone to dinner in the community where they went to school to support some of the restaurants that have supported the school over the years.

    There are 24 high schools on the graduation schedule and, according to the DCSD website, there are 5 stadiums. Some schools’ graduating classes are small enough that they could be held in their auditorium, gym, or even at the DCSD central office auditorium, probably enough that it could get down to 4 high schools needing each stadium. Seems like across the first Saturday after seniors are done and the following Friday (the day after the last day of school for underclassmen), 2 ceremonies could be held at each stadium. The Sundays and the last Saturday could be rain dates to keep them close to the original date for traveling relatives.

    Success at GWCC also depends partially on good weather because of the long walk from the lots and garages and the fact that there is no inside space after the ceremony is over. The lobby is then being filled with people waiting for the next graduation so the graduation that just finished has to get outside.

  19. Thirty Years Dedicated

    You really can’t please everyone in a large district; and the logistics and planning with Atlanta traffic trying to ensure that he superintendent and board members can be present one central location is best for all.

  20. Does the superintendent attend all of them? I thought it was mostly the BOE member for that school and the regional super.

    Can’t please everyone but stand a better chance of a more positive outcome for those involved if each high school can decide their own plans within the confines of the DCSD rules like no church….but then again, DCSD has had job fairs at churches this year so…

  21. Stan Jester

    @AB, As you probably know, there is a perception of disparity between North and South DeKalb. This is the result of the effort from the central office to bring “consistency, parity and equity” to all schools.

  22. @Stan, or in other words, lower the ceiling instead of raising the floor. Deliver mediocre crap to all which brings some up but brings others down instead of just focusing on helping those who really need and want it. Graduation should be a school-specific event, not a district event. My friends outside of Atlanta have never heard of graduations run centrally with no local school input.

    Stan, I’d be interested to know how many graduates each school has. I know enrollments, but the # who graduate is less. Of the 22 high schools listed on the county website, 7 have total enrollment fewer than 1000:

    DECA 302
    DSA 431
    Elizabeth Andrews 513
    McNair 658
    Towers 832
    Columbia 961
    Redan 998
    Stone Mountain 1113
    Cedar Grove 1116
    SW DeKalb 1175

    The 4 largest are:

    Chamblee 1722
    Tucker HS 1769
    Dunwoody 2095
    Lakeside 2111

    So it would seem that the largest schools would be the ones clamoring for a GWCC-like solution b/c of their size, but they aren’t – they are the ones that want some local control. And the ones for whom GWCC is supposedly the “fair, equitable” solution don’t need a concrete warehouse that can seat 7000 because their classes are SMALL.

    This entire “solution” is garbage. What suits a school with 100 graduates is not what suits a class of 450.

  23. When will the 2019-2020 Budget out June 11 2019 why was the Board meeting change
    To June 10 2019 thank u Stan

  24. Stan Jester

    @Bama, When will the detailed budget be out? Good question. I still have basic questions about the teacher raise I need answered. June 10th has always been a planned board meeting day as far as I know.

    Message from CFO Bell, “Finance is completing the responses to your and other Board member’s questions this afternoon. Once the Superintendent approves transmission they should be sent out.”

  25. These are some great ideas for avoiding the GWCC and bringing it back into the community. Forgive me for my ignorance, but what’s the next step? Stan, do you make a motion to the board to have this policy changed? What are the reasons that could be presented so South DeKalb school board members would support this motion? How do we move forward? Or is this just so much talk…

  26. This was not a decision made by the Board of Ed particularly. When Dr. Green started most schools were graduating at large mega churches or the stadiums. Multiple complaints were filed with at least one organization about separation of church and state but also from parents who were concerned about specific churches (I remember a news piece on New Birth Church and graduation)

    Gwinnett does their graduations this way at the Gwinnett Arena. All GCSS schools are huge though.

    As someone who was watching the discussion about the date when it was announced, I did notice many parents change their position when they understood that the alternative was like N. DeKalb or Adams Stadium.

    I like others believe that suffering in the heat for an hour to two hours is a better option and with 5 stadiums, the system could do a graduation a night for a couple of nights so all schools could have an evening start time. (some schools likely can fit in the various smaller venus that may be available around the area)

    But the downside is that if it rains, depending on the size of the school, graduation may be shortened or moved inside — and if moved, generally speaking only two guests per student.

  27. I get that it wasn’t made by the board. But the original question remains. What’s the next step?

  28. Stan Jester

    Next step … I think we are already locked into 2020. Granted, I don’t recall that coming before the board… I could be wrong.

  29. So if it isn’t locked in for 2021, it sounds like action needs to be taken asap to get it fixed for this year’s junior class. What steps need to be taken to change this policy, Stan? I agree that the schools are different and should be allowed to plan their own ceremony if desired.

    For what it’s worth, I had a child graduate in 2016 from Lakeside, and the ceremony was held at a large church in Lithonia – so don’t tell me that South DeKalb doesn’t have nice options! I was worried that it would feel overly Christian for the non-Christians in the audience, but I ended up very impressed — they had hung black curtains which covered up the altar, cross, etc., and the students all sat where their choir must sit, in stadium-style seating that faced the audience. It was fantastic — everyone in the audience could see every graduate throughout the whole ceremony!

  30. YetiOnVacation

    Generally I like the GWCC as a venue. It is easy to get to on Marta or the non-GWCCC parking across the street. Yes it is large and impersonal, but for both of my kids (2017 and 2019 graduates and will have additional ones in 2020 and 2029) there was plenty of room for their 12-15 guests and I could hear and see the ceremonies.
    My high school graduation was outside, in Houston, TX, and was pretty miserable.

    I do think there needs to be adjustment of the length of graduation based on size of the school, Lakeside had ~470 graduates in 2019 and at the end they were announcing the names really quickly. In addition, finding kids on the plaza took time and we only had the family partially assembled for pictures in the plaza before the bull horns came out.
    I did not like that the ceremony was a week after graduation, but that is not a GWCC issue per se.
    I would not object to Infinite Energy Center for graduations after 2020, probably would provide better sight lines and similar traffic issues to GWCC, but then the State Farm Arena would do so as well.