Look for a show of color — with meaning — at high school graduation ceremonies in St. Paul this school year.
The school board is nearing a policy change that would allow students to decorate their gowns in ways that celebrate their identity and ethnicity.
Last spring, graduates at Humboldt and Creative Arts schools were permitted to don the so-called “identity adornments” — primarily multicolored stoles hanging over the front of their gowns. The experiment was a success, according to district administrator Jackie Statum Allen, who described the graduates as proud, happy and “smiley.”
The change is being sought by the SPPS Student Engagement and Advancement Board, a group of students whose membership changes annually. In recent years, the group has successfully promoted stronger accountability measures for school resource officers, or cops in the schools, and a halt to the unequal treatment of girls in the enforcement of school dress codes.
In a presentation earlier this year promoting the change in graduation attire, the students cited concerns over a Harding High graduate being barred from wearing a stole reflecting her Asian heritage.
“Wearing cultural items is a way to say, ‘I made it. I’m here,’ ” Skyler Kuczaboski, a group member at the time, told the school board then.
At Humboldt and Creative Arts, the adornments had to be approved in advance — a practice that will continue if the district takes the move citywide.
A collection of photos shared with school board members recently showed graduates wearing stoles with the red, blue and white stripes of the flag of Thailand; orange and pink of the Hmong community; and the green, red and yellow common to African kente cloth.
“BLACK GRADS MATTER,” one stole also read.
Asked last week what the district’s stance would be on adornments with political messages, Statum Allen referred to the dress code section of the district’s rights and responsibilities handbook. It bars references to gang affiliations, firearms or violence, as well as items seen as obscene, racist or sexist, among other restrictions.
Board Member John Brodrick, a retired teacher and coach who had to enforce rules on graduation attire, said he’s concerned about the pressure being put on the graduation coordinators who have to vet the garments. He predicted some items will be deemed inappropriate. If that opinion then were to be upheld by the principal, he said, he feared there could be lawsuits. Brodrick has been alone among board members, however, in expressing reservations about the change.
Board Member Chue Vue said the board must focus on students and their desire to make graduation an even greater cause for celebration.
The board is expected to take final action on the proposal on Dec. 19.