Montclair graduation venue sets off debate in community
PHOTO BY NEIL GRABOWSKY
By ERIN ROLL and LINDA MOSS
Who is a Mountie?
By one definition, it’s anyone who has crossed the footbridge over Toney’s Brook in the amphitheater on Park Street to receive a Montclair High School diploma. The tradition has deep meaning for many Montclair families.
But parents with tickets were turned away at this year’s graduation on June 22 because of overcrowding, and the question of holding the ceremony elsewhere has arisen, and not for the first time.
One mother who was refused entry to her son’s graduation expressed her disappointment on social media. On Share Montclair, a Facebook group with over 3,000 members, the topic generated dozens of comments. For some parents of rising seniors and younger children, not seeing their children graduate is unthinkable. For families eager to watch the next generation cross the bridge, moving the ceremony is unthinkable. The discussion became heated, at times taking on an old Montclair vs. new Montclair tone, and questions were also raised about gentrification and racial issues.
One commenter said space was tight back in the 1970s. Board of Education President Laura Hertzog agrees that this is not a new issue. She said Friday that she had heard from some parents about the issue and that the question of whether to keep holding the graduation in the amphitheater had come up several times over the years.
“Many people — like me — who graduated in that space can’t imagine it happening anywhere else, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a fair question to ask, and I’m sure we will be discussing it as a board with the superintendent,” Hertzog said.
Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak said that the district would be considering the possibility of moving the ceremony elsewhere. James Earle, MHS principal, did not return multiple calls and emails asking for comment.
Some suggested venues are Woodman Field or an indoor venue that could accommodate everyone. Suggestions for preserving the tradition include restricting the number of tickets — currently three — issued to each student, closing off Park Street and setting up bleachers, or even allowing families to watch from the windows at the high school.
Christa Rapaport has lived in Montclair since 1998 and has a child in the Class of 2018.
Last week she released a statement on behalf of some of the other parents of students in the class: “Like many of my fellow parents of the MHS Class of 2018, we appreciate and honor tradition. We are also cognizant of the fact that traditions can become outdated. Changing venues would lose history, and perhaps add cost and complexity. We are concerned that the preservation of tradition has not been aligned with practical measures such as crowd control, closing Park Street and adding bleachers, and of course, improved ticket dispersal. For example, if 500 tickets are issued, there should be room for 500 guests. …”
Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renée Baskerville, herself a Mountie, favors finding ways to make more space in the amphitheater, such as bleachers in the back.
Although she enjoys taking part in the procession and ceremony every year, Baskerville acknowledges that dignitaries take up seats that could be given to graduates’ family members. “They might even tell [those of] us who want to march to stand around the periphery,” she said.
Latifah Jannah, a longtime schools staffer who has worked as a counselor at Mount Hebron [now Buzz Aldrin] Middle School, has a granddaughter in the Class of 2018.
Jannah wants to keep the ceremony in the amphitheater. “I think this conversation [of] whether to continue to hold MHS graduations at the amphitheater speaks to a larger community issue around, what seems to be, rapid high-cost development, influx of newer residents without strong connections to the town, and residents with long roots/connections being forced out,” she said via email on Friday.
“Clearly, there needs to be an acknowledgment of the culture and tradition of our town, and how we can preserve them for those of us who have been here, and not leaving, and for our families, that will, hopefully, be able to remain,” Jannah said. “As well as newer residents, so that they can build and add on.”
Peter Giuffra, not a Mountie but the recipient of an honorary diploma from MHS for his support of the school, strongly favors finding a way to preserve the tradition.
“I never want it to leave the amphitheater,” said Giuffra, whose four children graduated there. “It’s a unique spot in this whole country. There’s no high school that has an amphitheater like that.”
Giuffra said he plans to attend a BOE meeting to advocate for keeping the tradition.
School board member Joe Kavesh is a “big fan of tradition” and would like to see graduation continue in the amphitheater.
“Having said that, I recognize that nothing is forever,” Kavesh said.
Councilman Bob Russo sees both sides too.
“Perhaps we should use the Yogi Berra stadium or some other larger facility at Montclair State University for our MHS graduation. …” he said. “However, I still like the traditional location framed by the high school. We just need more room for all the visitors and family members to participate more comfortably.”
Most important, Kavesh said, is to hear what MHS students think. “At the end of the day, it’s their day.”
Where to hold next year’s graduation will be decided in the next 11 months. What defines a Mountie may take longer to settle.