Stafford MSD has found a unique way to publicly recognize its graduating seniors amidst concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
The idea – posting the students’ photos on giant digital billboards overlooking the city of Stafford – came as a shock to at least one of them.
“I was really surprised and happy to see myself up there, and a lot of my relatives have been reaching out and saying they were so excited when they me saw up there,” said Gabrielle Butler, one of Stafford High School’s salutatorians.
Though the pandemic has prevented many school districts in Texas from being able to hold traditional commencement ceremonies as scheduled, SMSD is attempting to honor its graduates virtually through a collaboration with Clear Channel Outdoor.
Photos of all seniors will be displayed on all four of the Clear Channel digital billboards in Stafford. The photos, which consist of 195 seniors from the class of 2020, are being displayed on a rotating basis through the end of this month.
“I didn’t know they were going to do it, and I just thought it was a good gesture to bring positivity when everyone’s feeling down and not knowing what’s going on,” Butler said. “They’re still thinking about us and committed to helping us have a good finish to the year and ending our school career strong even if we can’t have the traditional events.”
SMSD Superintendent Robert Bostic said the idea grew from a desire to commemorate the outgoing seniors and help them remember their final year of high school for something other than the pandemic.
“We really wanted to make sure we were showcasing our kids in a special way, because it’s pretty terrible that they can’t walk across the stage and graduate like folks have traditionally done,” he said. “We wanted them to know that we love them and we see that they need to be supported. This was a neat way to do it while keeping social distancing and having the signature of not trying to do what everyone else did.”
Lee Vela with Clear Channel Outdoor said SMSD paid $2,000 – or $500 per billboard – to digitally honor its graduates.
“Hopefully the students and their parents see their faces up on the billboard, and then they become a celebrity,” Vela said. “It’s important for us to recognize these graduating seniors, because they’ve worked long and hard to get where they are. This is part of our commitment to the communities in which we operate.”
Initially, Stafford seniors put yard signs outside their homes to acknowledge their graduation into the next stage of their lives. But Bostic said something about the arrangement still seemed off. The celebration still lacked what he called the district’s “SMSD Swag.”
“(Yard signs) didn’t seem big enough or enough of a signature,” Bostic said. “A billboard on (Highway 59) with your face plastered up there is a virtual way to give your kid that big embarrassing hug in front of everyone saying, ‘I love you. You did something great.’”
The efforts appear to be appreciated, at least by the Butler family. Gabrielle’s father, Chris, said it is an extension of the love that SMSD has shown its students, including both of his daughters.
“I’ve appreciated a lot of what the district has done over the years,” he said. “…That’s what you get with a small entity – a little more special focus on (the students).”
Gabrielle’s mother, Garri, echoed the sentiment.
“I feel so proud and happy not only seeing her face, but those students who have been with her since kindergarten. They’re going to do great things in the world,” she said. “I appreciate all that (SMSD) has done in going out of their way to acknowledge the kids. Even if they don’t get a graduation, they’ll know the school thought enough of them to try doing something other than just a virtual ceremony.”
Gov. Greg Abbott previously ordered all Texas schools to close for the remainder of the year. Last week, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath issued statewide guidelines for graduation ceremonies, saying schools can conduct virtual ceremonies with the use of video or vehicle ceremonies that involve drive-in or drive-through activities.
Morath said schools also can utilize outdoor venues that allow for adequate social distancing. Bostic said SMSD still plans to have a physical graduation ceremony at 8 p.m. July 17 at Constellation Field in Sugar Land, where SMSD can ensure that participants and attendees can adhere to social distancing.
That would be perfect for Gabrielle Butler, who wants to give her fellow seniors a proper sendoff.
“I’ll be happy to just have a graduation – I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time,” she said. “I’m working on my speech and I’m excited to share my parting words. I’m still just as excited about graduation as I was before this whole thing.”
In the meantime, she and her classmates can become stars in their local community.
“(The digital billboards) helped us give them that moment to let them know we love them. You see it, and so does everybody else,” Bostic said. “That’s exactly the good old embarrassing hug from your mom and dad that shows you are loved.”