Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Comcast Center is a graduation option

Not all Churchill parents want a sports arena ceremony

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When Potomac resident Susan Beck’s daughter graduated from Winston Churchill High School in 2006, Beck never expected she would have to leave in the middle of the ceremony to feed a parking meter.

The ceremony was held at Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall, a historic downtown Washington venue. Constitution Hall has traditionally been the site where graduates of the Potomac high school celebrate the rite of passage. But Beck, along with several other parents, say that sparse parking and crowding at the venue add unnecessary frustration to an otherwise joyous occasion.

This school year, there is an alternative. Schools with projected graduating classes of 500 students or more are eligible to hold graduation at the University of Maryland’s Comcast Center, a space that some parents say provides more seating, more parking and a lower-stress graduation experience.

Many Montgomery County public high schools have traditionally held their graduation at Constitution Hall, where the size of the venue restricts the number of tickets allotted to each student, some say, forcing parents to decide who can attend. And parking garages fill up quickly — leaving parents to fend for themselves with on-street metered parking, which is limited to two hours.

‘‘I had to go out during the ceremony, walk the two blocks, feed the meter and come back afterwards,” Beck said.

Beck also said the venue poses a problem for families with grandparents in attendance. Beck had to drop off her elderly in-laws before hunting for a parking spot, and then find her relatives again in the throng of attendees, many of whom were waiting in the District’s intense summer heat.

The decision for MCPS to allow certain schools to choose the Comcast Center was spurred late last spring when Montgomery Blair High School, with a 2008 graduating class of 694 as of September, was in need of a venue that could accommodate the large class.

Blair, however, couldn’t afford the venue, and was considering using a church, which raised church and state separation issues, said Cathy D. Pevey, executive assistant to the Chief School Performance Officer, whose office administers graduations.

Shortly before graduation, MCPS made the decision to shoulder the majority of the costs for large schools to use the Comcast Center, allowing for Blair to graduate there, according to Pevey.

Sherwood also switched to Comcast last year by offering to come up with the funds, Pevey said.

At the time of Weast’s June decision, Montgomery Blair, Col. Zadok Magruder, Sherwood and Thomas S. Wootton high schools were projected to meet the 500 student threshold. Schools such as Churchill, whose projections fell within 5 percent of the number, could appeal to MCPS to graduate at the Comcast Center. Churchill, however, did not appeal and will continue to hold graduation this year at D.A.R., which has raised some concern among parents.

‘‘A lot of people are involved with a child’s education, and when we come down to it, we don’t get to make it a family event,” said Janis Sartucci, a parent of a graduating senior at Churchill who supports switching to the Comcast Center.

This year, the Comcast Center will host graduations for Sherwood, Blair and Magruder, Pevey said.

At $38,000, the Comcast Center is pricey compared to Constitution Hall, which costs $5,700. MCPS shoulders the cost, but schools that choose the Comcast Center must come up with $5,000 to help deflect some of the price. Weast’s June memo indicated that parents and students should be involved with individual schools’ decisions.

Churchill senior class advisor Rodney Van Tassell, who helps raise funds for graduation, prom and homecoming, said he was concerned about the extra cost involved with switching to Comcast. Van Tassell also said that students were surveyed about the issue in December, and results showed that most preferred Constitution Hall.

‘‘The ambiance of the venue is so much nicer than [Comcast], which I would consider to be a cold or stale,” Van Tassell said. ‘‘[Constitution Hall] is more stately and professional.” Van Tassell said students surveyed shared the sentiment that the ambiance at Constitution Hall surpassed the sports-arena feel of the Comcast Center.

Some parents, however, feel they were left out of the decision-making process. Beck said her son, who is graduating from Churchill this year, was never surveyed and would prefer to graduate at the Comcast Center.

‘‘He knows his grandfather is coming this year and [Comcast] will make it much easier for him,” Beck said.