RALEIGH — Downtown Raleigh will host 19 Wake County high school graduations next week, with about 9,000 graduates and 90,000 family members and friends – in just four days.
From Monday through Thursday, the Raleigh Convention Center and Duke Energy Performing Arts Center will host graduations morning to night. Graduates and their families will enter and leave the buildings like clockwork, with each ceremony lasting only about an hour.
It’s the fifth year that the new convention center has handled graduations, and officials said they expect the events to go smoothly.
“We had it down to a science in the old building, and we kind of had to recreate it all in the new building,” said Michelle Boyette, event and sales manager at the Convention Center.
“The first year was an absolute nightmare, to be honest. We made every mistake there was.”
But with each year of experience, they improved, Boyette said.
“(I expect) smooth sailing,” she said. “Last year was wonderful.”
About 100 people are involved in coordinating and staffing the events, said Doug Grissom, assistant director of the Convention Center Complex. Grissom said most schools use the same stage setup, which just has to be reset at the end of each graduation.
“You go in, clean everything, straighten everything up ... then do it again, and again, and again,” he said.
The city charges the school system to use the convention and performing arts centers, though at a discount. This year’s numbers aren’t in yet, but last year’s graduation rehearsals and ceremonies cost the school system about $116,000.
City and school officials have some advice for parents, families, and friends attending: Don’t arrive too early.
“If your graduation is at 8 p.m., we can’t let you in until 7 p.m.,” Boyette said. “We have a small window of time to change the setup for the next school.”
Dana King, principal of Millbrook High School, said her staff handles the big day and the limited time frame by being respectful of the other groups.
King said her school also has a midyear graduation between semesters.
“I graduate 50 to 70 students (midyear) in an hour,” she said. “And next Monday we’ll graduate 450 students in an hour.”
King said she has seen all kinds of problems arise during graduations, including unruly family members and students who didn’t show up because they got into a car accident on their way to the program.
“You run into every kind of problem,” she said. “You just try to use your experience to find out how to best handle it and recognize that every situation is unique and try to work with that student and family.”
This year, King is nervous about parking; Millbrook’s graduation is at 8 p.m. on Monday in the convention center, and there is a 7 p.m. concert at the Red Hat Amphitheater across the street.
“This concert conflict has thrown a monkey wrench into our plans for the first time ever,” she said.
Convention center officials said they have done extra planning to make sure the concert won’t cause any problems.
Grissom said that since both events are in the evening, the parking decks that normally hold people who work downtown will be available for graduation families and concertgoers.
Heather Dinkenor, a teacher at Leesville Road High School who organizes graduation, also had some advice: Come early enough to see the processional of the graduates.
“When they say graduation is at 4 p.m., or for whatever school, what that means is the ceremony starts at that time, but the processional actually starts earlier,” Dinkenor said.
Dinkenor added that organizing such a large event not only takes effort from the staff but also relies on the graduates.
“The kids have to do the preparation of the rehearsal. The kids have to know what’s expected,” she said. “And if the kids do a good job, then everything goes like clockwork.”
Dinkenor said this is her sixth year planning the event and that she, too, has seen issues crop up on graduation day.
“We had somebody faint from standing too long, and we had people show up for the wrong school’s graduation,” she said. “But other than that, it goes pretty well.”