It wasn’t how they had planned it. But on Saturday members of the largest class in the history of East Central High School had their moment in the spotlight.

As Pomp and Circumstance blasted from speakers and car horns blared, a parade of charter vans, stretch limos and Hummers, pickup trucks and SUVs, cars and convertibles, many decorated in school colors, snaked through the school parking lot. As they approached the buildings, and graduates heard their name called, each stepped out in cap and gown, crossed the outdoor stage, and accepted his or her diploma.

The 792 students from the Class of 2020 were released for spring break on March 6 never to return to the classroom, the gym, or the “Hornets” ball fields for the final weeks of high school. They had missed prom, a class trip, senior skip day, and more as a pandemic spread across the nation, shuttering both businesses and schools. Officials at East Central were determined to hold a graduation ceremony worth remembering.

After spending days planning and rehearsing for the vehicle graduation ceremony, which was held the same day it had originally planned the commencement ceremony, East Central administration honored its seniors with a “parade of graduates.” Approved under the state’s orders banning large gatherings, the alternative graduation had all the frills of the time-honored tradition of high school graduation with the added bonus of a parade.

Starting at 7:30 a.m. with the summa cum laude graduates, the parade continued through the warm summer morning, organized alphabetically in a car line that stretched out onto FM 1628 in a rural part of far southeast Bexar County. The parade lasted more than seven hours, some families and graduates waiting at the Pruski’s Market parking lot before driving to the school at their designated time, passing fencepost signs congratulating them along the way.

The largest graduating class in East Central history is displayed along fences on the parade route. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Proud family members packed inside the vehicles, or seated in truck beds, leaned from their seats and through sunroofs to snap photos of their graduates.

After a fist bump from Principal Shane McKay, ceremoniously turning the tassel on their cap, and walking a red carpet to pose for an official photo, graduates returned to their vehicles as the parade route continued across a school campus lined with teachers and staff cheering them on.

Eighty of the new graduates are departing for military service after graduation, said Frank Leota, Army instructor in the school’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), and that was one reason not to postpone the event. Four East Central graduates have been accepted to service academies, and 20 will go on to college ROTC programs. That’s worth celebrating, he said.

“It’s very unfortunate that we’re all going through this right now as a country,” Leota said while waving to students in the parade. “But we have to represent our students … It isn’t as large as we traditionally do [but] we’re proud. We’re proud of each and every one of these students.”

Early in the parade, graduate Charles Butler sat in the back of a black stretch limo with two younger sisters by his side, his parents watching a livestream of the event from a laptop.

Butler’s mother said she rented the limo because she wanted to make the event special despite it being different than what they had expected. Butler said he plans to attend San Antonio College before going on to Texas State University to study wildlife biology.

Kayla Gonzales sat in the front seat of a large passenger van decorated by her cousins and filled with family members as she waited for her turn to cross the stage. “It is a year to remember,” said Gonzales, who plans to attend Texas A&M-Kingsville and play softball.

Ten family members crowded into a pickup truck decked out with balloons to celebrate Justin Gutierrez’s graduation from East Central. All smiles in the backseat, Justin’s grandmother, Gloria, said, “At least they got to do something for the graduates and we appreciate this.” Justin is attending Texas A&M-International in the fall and plans to play baseball.

Seated in her family’s van, decorated by her sister, Amelia Garza said the event wasn’t exactly what she had planned for her graduation, but “at least it’s better than nothing.”

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In addition to holding the parade of graduates, school officials livestreamed the event on Facebook and YouTube, and broadcast it through a local radio station that families could tune into as their cars approached the stage.

Brandon Oliver, director of marketing and communications for East Central ISD, said graduates will receive a video recording of the event with images and footage taken by a drone that circled overhead during the parade.

“We wanted to give graduates their moment,” he said of the drive-thru graduation, which he noted allowed graduates to spend more time with their families during the event than they would have had sitting in a crowded arena.

More than half of the school’s faculty and staff volunteered to attend the graduation parade, said Assistant Principal Rodney Vigil, who helped organize the event, working with not only school officials, but also local law enforcement and the Department of Transportation to design the route and direct traffic. The school’s stadium could not be used because it is being renovated.

Vigil said all of the careful planning was to recognize the 13 years of work put in by the students and for parents eager to see the culmination of that hard work. “Those parents want to see their kiddo [graduate].”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is a journalist and writer in San Antonio, and a business reporter for The Rivard Report.