Behind the scenes: It takes heart, soul and 780 chairs to plan a perfect graduation

With their tassel’s turned, mortar boards tossed and hopefully found amid the frenzy, the memory of their graduation ceremony is already exiting stage left for many Champlin Park grads. They have moved on to coordinating how to hit all the graduation parties and enjoying the freedom of summer. But for Champlin Park High School House 3 Assistant Principal Chris Nelson, graduation planning is a year-round event. The last of the 780 chairs used to seat the graduates on the floor of the Mariucci Arena may have been folded and put away but the planning for next year’s Class of 2014 is already underway. Just this week Nelson met with fellow assistant principals from Andover and Coon Rapids for a debriefing meeting on this year’s graduation and to make note of improvements for next year.

Champlin Park students celebrate their graduation with commencement exercises at the Mariucci Arena. (Sun staff photo by Mindy Mateuszczyk)
Champlin Park students celebrate their graduation with commencement exercises at the Mariucci Arena. (Sun staff photo by Mindy Mateuszczyk)

As soon as the next group of seniors walk through the school doors in the fall, Nelson and House 3 Secretary Lorri Carlson will be hard at work with all the planning and details required to make graduation a perfect night to remember.

“The first thing Lorri does is start our graduation database, ensuring kids are accounted for, working with counselors as kids are added or dropped,” said Nelson.

In the ensuing months, students are measured, weighed and have their names checked and double-checked for proper spelling. Information from students attending other schools and programs such as Crossroads, STEP, and PSEO must also be gathered.

By winter break, Carlson has ordered the diplomas and graduation announcements. Letters are drafted and sent home to senior families sharing the beginning details of when and where graduation will be held. For the last several years it’s been at the Mariucci Arena.

“We were the first district allowed to use the Mariucci,” said Nelson. It has allowed seniors to invite as many people as they want to the ceremony. This is particularly beneficial for larger or blended families. Nelson sees it as a positive and a way to reward families for the support they ask of families throughout their student’s high school career.

These days, the Mariucci Arena is home to many schools’ graduations, even outside of Anoka-Hennepin School District. Nelson said it is a significant partner in the planning and success of Champlin Park’s graduation ceremony as well as Andover and Coon Rapids High Schools. All part of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the three schools always conduct their commencement ceremonies back-to-back on the same day at the Arena.

Preparations really get into full swing by the spring. Nelson meets with the facilities manager at the Mariucci and plans out the details of the day’s event, going over the minutae of things like chairs, podiums, staging, sound, shrubbery and more.

“It’s exhausting. Stress levels get a little high,” said Carlson. But when everything is said and done, it’s the little things, said Nelson. In the final week prior to graduation, the program is compiled. This year it went through four rounds of proofreading to ensure every name was correctly spelled and every honor was correctly identified before being sent off to print just a few days before the big event.

Meanwhile, the final days for seniors are filled with cleaning out lockers, yearbook signing, the Senior BBQ and celebrating. There are also orator try-outs to select the class speakers at graduation as well as cap and gown distribution.

“It’s quite a process,” Nelson said. “We filtered 716 kids through four lines with a fifth station for those kids graduating with honors to receive their honor wear.”

After spending Saturday with the cap and gown distribution, they are back at the school again on Sunday taking care of final preparations before heading off to the Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis. This year, as Andover was out on the stage celebrating their graduation, Nelson and a crew of custodians were behind the scenes setting up signs for advisor stations in the tunnels so Champlin Park students would know where to go. After lining up with their advisor groups, students are funneled through another line for a photo before making there way to the backstage side of the curtains where they wait. As the band strikes up the first notes of pomp and circumstance, the official graduation ceremony finally gets underway. The grads make their grand entrance through the curtains, streaming into the stage side of the arena as family and friends cheer.

Nelson pointed out it takes a lot of people to pull off graduation.

“Lorri and I coordinate it but really, every single teacher, counselor and staff member at Champlin Park is involved in making graduation happen,” he said. “It’s really a team effort. It’s so big and so precise, there’s no way Lorri and I could do it on our own.”

This year it also took 12 volunteers, 4 ushers, 4 building custodians, 3 photographers, 2 band directors, 2 police officers, 2 sign language interpreters, 2 camera operators, 2 school board members, 1 sound booth operator, 1 choir director, 1 principal and 1 superintendent to graduate 716 students in front of a crowd of nearly 6,000 family and friends.

For Nelson, getting everything just right is of utmost importance.

“Graduation is so big, there can’t be a mistake,” he said. “For many families, this is the first graduation in the family. That’s a big deal. It has to be perfect, there is no other option.”


Contact Mindy Mateuszczyk at [email protected]