President’s Corner: Reflecting on High School Graduation in a Pandemic

JPEF President Rachael Tutwiler Fortune shares her thoughts as the parent of a senior.

4/29/2020

High school graduation has been a recurring theme in the life of JPEF President Rachael Tutwiler Fortune.

In her first job at JPEF, she worked on the ONE in THREE exhibit and ONE by ONE campaign raising awareness about Duval County’s dropout rate. At the U.S. Department of Education and America’s Promise Alliance, she worked to improve graduation and other student outcomes nationwide. High school graduation was a poignant milestone in her own life, and this year, her son, Nicholas, is graduating himself from Stanton College Preparatory School.

In a new Q&A, Rachael shared what high school graduation means to her, and offered some inspiration for fellow parents who are watching their graduating seniors miss out during their last year of high school.

Why is this year’s graduation an important moment for you, personally?

Graduation season is a time to celebrate major accomplishments.

This year, it is especially important to me because my first-born, Nicholas, is a class of 2020 graduating senior. He worked so hard to maintain good grades in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at his high school, and it just breaks my heart that he won’t have many of the experiences seniors look forward to – grad bash, prom, and so much more. IB testing has been cancelled this year, and we don’t yet know what that means for him. That’s probably the thing that bothers me the most. I know how much he has poured into his coursework throughout high school and he was prepared to finish strong.

But my son is resilient, and though learning has moved to a virtual platform for the remainder of his senior year, he is still working extremely hard. He is still giving it his all. He is still finishing strong.

While I am certain he would have preferred we not have a global pandemic at this time, he is excited that Duval County Public Schools still plans to have graduation ceremonies in July, and he is even more excited to set off for college in the fall.

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Rachael and her son toured colleges in Washington, D.C. last fall.

Looking back on your life and career, what do you think is the true meaning of graduation? Why is it such an important milestone?

High school graduation is a critical indicator that students are prepared for their next steps in life.

In other words, the value of a high school diploma is that it signals college and workplace readiness. This is especially true because many states, including the great state of Florida, have raised the rigor of K-12 learning standards over the years and added career and technical training programs like culinary arts, automotive repair, video game programming and welding. 

Beyond that, graduation means more much than academic achievement. It also signifies the power to persist and thrive socially, beating incredible odds. After the 12-13 years students spend meeting basic education requirements, they feel a sense of accomplishment that a foundational chapter of their lives is complete. For many public school students, the journey from child to youth to legal adult is full of challenges, and graduation represents a huge accomplishment personally.

That’s why this milestone means so much to me. I was what many would consider ‘at-risk’ of not graduating, because I gave birth to Nicholas when I was in high school. Today I beam with pride when I look at him, a member of the graduating class of 2020 at Stanton College Preparatory School; his future is extremely bright. Nicholas and I, and now our entire family, which includes my husband, Emmanuel, and 14-month-old daughter, Elle, have embarked upon a very special journey to inspire each other to overcome challenges and pursue purpose in life.

It’s important to me that every student receive the support they need to graduate and go on to pursue their life goals. Through my work on graduation-related initiatives at JPEF and at America’s Promise Alliance in Washington, D.C., I’ve come to understand that young people are placed at a significant disadvantage if they do not graduate.

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In Duval County, we’re now graduating 86.5 percent of our public school students – a huge increase over the last decade. Why is that such a good thing for our city?

When young people graduate from high school, it improves the prospects for their own lives and strengthens the economy for everyone. High school graduates are more able to obtain better paying jobs, and when they earn more, they spend more on quality-of-life items like houses and cars. Graduation rates are also tied to job creation and a higher gross domestic product. Our investments in graduates pour money back into the city, state and country.

Conversely, when students don’t graduate from high school, they are at greater risk for living in poverty and needing public assistance. Even more, when young people who haven’t graduated become parents, it creates a cycle of poverty: their children are at risk for poorer educational, behavioral and health outcomes. All too often, when people are trapped in the cycle of poverty, they are also at risk of winding up in the criminal justice system, which is not only a bad outcome for them personally, but also for all of us, because taxpayers bear the high costs of incarceration.

Needless to say, the more we support students to graduate from high school, the stronger our communities and country will be.

Graduation is a moment when we think of our children transitioning into adulthood and entering the world on their own. How do you feel as a parent who's passing the torch to your son during this difficult time?

To be honest, as a parent of a class of 2020 senior, I am quite anxious about releasing him into the world as it is today. But as my son likes to remind me, I have to trust that my husband and I have prepared him to make good decisions and navigate the challenging terrain successfully. The fact that he tells me this – when I want nothing more than to continue to guard and protect him – lets me know that he and his peers are ready to overcome, ready to soar and ready to lead.

I hope as they embark upon their next steps, they learn and apply important lessons in leadership. I hope they think critically about tough problems and bring people together to solve them. I hope they unlock innovative and effective solutions to close persistent inequities that affect people living in poverty and people of color. Though many of the challenges we face are extremely difficult and unprecedented, I hope they rise up and see that this is their opportunity to make a difference in the world.

As I prepare to pass the torch to my son, I do so with pride. I know he and so many young people aren’t waiting for graduation to start standing in the gap for those who couldn’t. I know they are already exercising wisdom and judgment while leading on important issues.

While we parents might be anxious, I believe my son is right.

They’re ready.

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Did You Know?

86.5 % of students district-wide graduated high school in 2019, a record high.

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