The answer: An all night, drug- and alcohol-free party for graduating seniors to celebrate together safely as a class for the last time after graduating from high school.
The question: What is “Project Graduation?”
In the early 1980s, the state of Maine lost 18 students over two years to alcohol-related accidents on high school graduation nights. From these tragedies, “Project Graduation” was born. The idea spread across the state, and then across the country. Do a Google search on the words and you’ll find websites from schools in Tennessee and Texas, from Virginia to California. The Maine Office of Substance Abuse website (maine.gov/bds/osa/pubs/prev/1999/projgrad.pdf) even features a comprehensive, 38-page document detailing how communities can put on their own parties, with ideas on locations, fundraising and themes.
Many schools in Arizona host Project Graduation parties. Last year, I volunteered to work a shift as a photographer at one all-night high school celebration, which took place at North Phoenix Baptist Church in Phoenix.
When I walked in, my jaw dropped. Think Disneyland for teens.
First, there was a karaoke room. In the next room, there was a casino, with volunteer dads, decked out in tuxedos, as dealers. A magician had several seniors spellbound — he drew a crowd the entire time I was there. The walls were lined with small poster collages, one of each student. Unbeknownst to the graduates, parents had created them for their sons and daughters, assembling photographs of milestones and gluing them onto poster board. Kids clustered around the posters, huge grins on their faces as they found their own, howling with laughter as they found each other’s.
There was music and tons of stuff to eat: a buffet with pizza, Mexican and Chinese food; cookies, ice cream, sodas, even a frozen fruit drink machine. A “candy store” was set up near a theater-style area where the movie “Austin Powers” was playing. One graduate sidled up to the display, curious about what you had to do to get some candy. “Nothing,” the volunteers said. “You can have whatever you want.” He shook his head in disbelief, and then asked for some Junior Mints. “Any more?” the moms asked. He ended up taking a pack of Tootsie Rolls before he walked away, for the moment, at least. Graduate from high school, get all of the candy you want!
There was Sumo wresting in the gym, with a few of those colorful, inflatable bouncing/sliding monstrosities. Teens pedaled around on oversized tricycles. A gentleman with a gray ponytail was telling fortunes. The kids were very intent on what he had to say. I don’t think the line for his booth let up the entire time I was there.
Scottsdale’s Horizon High School community started organizing an overnight party for graduating seniors 13 years ago, after some Horizon students were killed on graduation night.
“Fiesta Farewell” has become a tradition at the school, which is part of the Paradise Valley Unified School District. This year, on Thursday, May 27, students will toss their caps into the air after the ceremony. After a burst of fireworks, they’ll leave the campus to change clothes, and then head back to the school. Each student who enters the party will sign a pledge to remain alcohol and drug free for the evening. Pledges are tossed in to a drum. Every hour, a name is drawn for a prize.
Lynn Johnston has been planning this year’s “Fiesta Farewell” since September. She’ll be up for 48 hours straight for the Fiesta, but she thinks it’s worth it. It takes 16 committees of parent volunteers to make the night happen. “Everybody pitches in,” she says. “The parents are wonderful . . . . I can’t say enough about it.”
Kids are permitted to leave the party, but cannot re-enter once they have gone. Raffle drawings are one incentive to stay. There is a grand prize drawing at 4:30 a.m. Prizes in the past have included laptops or DVD players. “They have to be present to win,” Johnston says, “but they don’t have to be awake.” Attendance last year was about 92 percent.
What Adam Cavrell, 18, now a freshman at the University of Arizona, liked best about it was just “hanging out with my friends from high school, for a last time everyone would be together.” Adam stayed until 6 a.m. and says he “played blackjack all night.”
All of this is expensive. Usually, that is the reason that Project Graduation does not happen at every school. Dobson High school principal Steve Green said that, after a survey to determine interest at his school, one of the main concerns was cost. Not enough students voiced an interest in the party to make it economically feasible. “When kids have to buy the ticket, that’s when they really vote,” says Green.
At some schools, parents’ fundraising efforts are so successful that there is no charge for students to attend “Project Grad.” Johnston’s budget of more than $20,000 comes largely from contributions. Sixty to 70 percent of the funds come from parent contributions. For the rest, the committees tap Horizon’s PTO and the Principal’s Fund. Horizon elementary and middle school feeder schools contribute from their PTOs as well. (Some elementary school teachers even volunteer to work all-night shifts.) Johnston’s committees solicit local businesses, too. For example, Malee’s restaurant at Desert Ridge in Scottsdale donated 15 percent of its receipts one night in March for the cause. Some schools have even snagged foundation grants to help defray costs. It’s truly a community effort.
And, that’s what it takes to keep kids safe. Maybe your area school is asking for donations to help support an all-night alcohol and drug free party for high school graduates in your community this month. Say yes.