High school seniors and their parents packed the USD 501 Board of Education Thursday night with a strong message: don't let Michelle Obama upstage the students' special moment.
Topeka Public Schools announced Thursday morning that it is combining its graduation ceremonies because they learned earlier in the week that the First Lady will give her only high school commencement speech in Topeka on May 17, on the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board ruling.
Seniors at Topeka High School say they were called together Thursday morning to be informed of the news. Chase Holford says her initial reaction was that the news was "amazing." However, once she called her mother, reality set in. She realized that, with a limited number of tickets, she would have to pick who among her parents, step-parents, six siblings and other extended family would be able to watch the ceremony from inside Landon Arena.
"It's going to be really difficult to decide who gets those tickets," she said.
District officials say combining Topeka High, Topeka West, Highland Park, Capital City School and Hope Street Academy adds up to more than 800 graduates. Kansas Expocentre general manager H.R. Cook says he expects about 1300 people will be seated on the floor of Landon Arena for the combined ceremony. The typical graduation configuration would leave room for about 6500 guests in the stands. However, he says, in past years, the Topeka West and Topeka High ceremonies have attracted around 3,000 guests each.
Doing the math brought a crowd of parents and students to USD 501's board of education meeting Thursday night. Many told the board they felt the First Lady's appearance would detract from the students. Many were angered at word the students would not actually walk across the stage to receive diplomas, but Superintendent Dr. Julie Ford said that was not true and that students would still be accepting diplomas on stage.
One group gathered in the hallway outside the board room after their testimony to further discuss their concerns with Dr. Mike Hester, USD 501 General Director of Secondary Education. One student told him she and her classmates were upset because they looked forward to having a ceremony together with their school's special traditions.
"You can fix this," she told him.
Another student said she was honored Michelle Obama chose their schools but, if it was taking away from the students, then perhaps it wasn't the right thing to do.
And yet another student told him, simply, "We'd like our graduation back."
Kaley Cattoor and her mom Kacey shared those same concern. Kacey also pointed out that many families already paid for invitations and made party arrangements. Plus, extended family had made arrangements to travel from out of town, only to find out they wouldn't be able to attend the ceremony.
Ford says she understands Mrs. Obama's appearance will create some inconvenience, but she says it is a memorable way for the school district that is at the center of the Brown vs Board case to mark the 60th anniversary of the ruling desegregating schools.
"It really changed America and it is an opportunity to reflect on that," Ford said.
Ford says students are still the focus of the ceremony and the district plans to include each schools personal touches, such as the bagpipes of Highland Park.
While four tickets per student has been mentioned, Ford says that's still not final. She also said they are making arrangements for viewing on a large screen in another area of the Expocentre grounds as well as web streaming.
Even with their concerns, some students say they realize the First Lady's visit puts them in a class by themselves.
"Whatever she says on that day is going to impact me and a lot of students' hearts," said THS Senior Lance Torres.
Kansas Expocentre Prepares
Kansas Expocentre General Manager H.R. Cook says he and his staff will have a lot on their plates over the next four weeks. He says they have been involved in Presidential and other dignitary visits before, so they are familiar with what to expect in that area.
However, he said combining several large graduation will mean a lot of people trying to get in and out in a short amount of time. He says staff will be working on parking and traffic plans, in addition to facilities issues such as cleaning and restroom upkeep.
There also will be making accommodations for the national media expected to cover the First Lady's visit.
"This is Topeka's opportunity to shine," Cook said, "We hope to make it a seamless event for everyone."
Topeka Police Chief Ron Miller says his department has not yet heard from the Secret Service on security arrangements for the First Lady's trip.
However, he says Topeka Police, Topeka Public Schools Police, Shawnee County Sheriff's Office and Kansas Highway Patrol all have worked with Secret Service in the past for dignitary visits and know what to expect.. For example, the agencies worked together when Pesident Bush's visited to dedicate the Brown v Board National Historic Site on the 50th anniversary of the ruling.
Miller says between traffic control, facilities patrol and security sweeps, he expects all hands to be on deck. He says they'll utilize special operations personnel and not pull officers from normal patrol.