DEVENS -- The processional was as about as traditional as it gets: 55 senior high school students in robes and mortarboards marching across the grass and onto an outdoor stage to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance."
The audience was traditional, too, full of proud parents, relatives and friends from across the state, the region and the country. Folks like Jocelyn Foshay's multigenerational clan, a group that ranged in age from 5 months to 90 years old and came from as far as Arizona and as near as Ayer to see her graduate.
But the Francis W. Parker Essential Charter School is different, nontraditional and proud of it while creating traditions of its own. From the three divisions that make up the middle to high school class structure to the "gateway" process that characterizes each forward move to the friendly, first-name-basis relationships between teachers and students, it's all part of "The Parker Way," an experience like no other, according to those who are part of it.
Each graduating student held a red rose by its long green stem, compliments of the school community's family gardens, which also provided sprays of bloomery to dress up the stage. Parker School Principal Todd Sumner cited such credits in his opening remarks. Junior-class parents hosted the reception, he said.
Contributions like the flowers and the "hard and cheerful work" that went into planning the event and the reception show the esteem in which staff, parents and other students hold each other, he said.
The Parker community believes in the power of a student's voice, Sumner continued, a lead-in to another established Parker tradition. Rather than electing or appointing valedictorians or salutatorians, every student in the senior class is invited to speak at commencement, he said. This year, 19 students accepted the invitation. In addition, the class invited four faculty members to speak.
One of those was Spanish teacher Carrie Duff. "We shove you out of your comfort zone," she said, addressing the graduating class. Parker students travel, navigate their way through foreign countries ... why all the duress, the difficult expectations? Because we believe in you," in your potential and your sturdiness, Duff said.
"You've acquired important tools here," she said, such as the ability to think critically, face challenges, reach conclusions. And as they embark on their journey's next phase, their experience at Parker will provide long-term backup. "We're with you," she said.