HELENA — This weekend is a milestone for hundreds of students in Helena – graduating after what became very unusual years in high school.
“It’s a bit crazy, you know; I never thought I’d get to this moment,” said Paul Massey, a graduate from the Project for Alternative Learning, or PAL. “Yeah, it’s insane.”
On Friday, nearly 60 Helena Public Schools students took part in graduation ceremonies at Carroll College’s Nelson Stadium. About 600 more are set to walk across the stage on Saturday. Unlike last year, when the ceremonies looked very different because of COVID-19, the events this year are much closer to what they would have been before the pandemic.
Several dozen students from HPS’ Access to Success program were recognized Friday morning. At noon, 24 graduates from PAL heard their names called.
“I’m absolutely in a daze,” said graduate Amanda Klein. “I cannot believe this is happening, but I’m so grateful for PAL and what it’s done for me and all of us. It’s just a great feeling.”
Many PAL students credited the school and their teachers for helping them get to this point.
“I don’t think I would have graduated without PAL,” said Becca Caro.
Capital High’s graduation is set for 9 a.m. Saturday, and Helena High’s is set for 1 p.m. – though both of those times could change depending on the weather.
Students and administrators alike said this year’s graduations are a big moment, after a pandemic-affected year that’s been difficult for everyone.
“It’s been a very challenging year; there’s been a lot of trials and tribulations,” Massey said. “Lots of different things, especially in the start – trying to get everything figured out with going back ‘sort of,’ sometimes there, sometimes not.”
“When I think of all that the class of 2021 has gone through – and their families, and the faculty and staff – the opportunity to come together and celebrate them, but also celebrate the community and making sure that this graduation became possible, is a really meaningful experience,” said Helena Public Schools Superintendent Tyler Ream.
In 2020, the chairs graduates sat in were placed about 10 feet apart. Everyone participating had to wear masks, and only two guests were allowed to attend for each student. This year, the chairs were tighter together, masks weren’t required, each student got 10 tickets for the audience and hugs were a common sight.
“I feel really, really lucky,” said Caro. “I was really worried that it would be a sad, COVID-y graduation, but I’m really happy that I got to see my family and stuff.”
The Access to Success and PAL graduations would typically have been held indoors, but the district moved them to Carroll to ensure masks wouldn’t be needed.
The stands at Nelson Stadium will be about three-quarters full for the larger ceremonies on Saturday.
Ream, who is overseeing his last graduation before stepping down as HPS superintendent, said he’s grateful for the chance to celebrate these students.
“I don’t think I could be prouder of any group of graduates than this class of 2021, and everything that they’ve endured to get to this point,” he said. “And I truly believe that this generation will go on to do amazing things because of the hardships they’ve endured.”