Jeff Pack
Staff Writer

Nobody quite knew what to expect as senior Sachka Almonte stepped onto the Great Oak High School stadium field on the morning of Wednesday, May 13. 

Technically, Almonte was the first-ever Temecula Valley Unified School District student to graduate high school in the new virtual format the district implemented due to the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent social-distancing restrictions. 

Two of her family members watched from behind the fence that runs alongside the field, as Almonte, dressed in her cap and gown, was directed from a professional photo session by Studio 94 beside a 2020 sign to a series of school administrators, teachers and staff members who showed her where to go next. 

She was directed to the front of one of three stages set up by Great Oak for graduating seniors, where she held up a sign with her name on it for video and still cameras, then picked up a diploma case and entered the stage. 

She was met there by school Principal Aimee Ricken, who from a distance of 6 feet, congratulated her and showed Almonte where to stand and pose as the video recorder captured the announcement of her name over the stadium’s loudspeakers. 

After a few more photos from a still camera, she headed off the stage where she would rejoin her parents for more candid photos next to the school’s S.P.I.R.I.T. sign. The letters stand for scholarship, passion, integrity, reflection, involvement and teamwork.

Great Oak High School senior Sachka Almonte was the first student to graduate from the school during ceremonies held recently. After three days of ceremonies and filming, the complete graduation ceremony package will be broadcast on the internet in early June. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

Then it was over – Almonte had completed her virtual graduation from Great Oak High School – to be aired a later date. 

For the administration at Great Oak High School, it meant one down, 700-plus seniors to go – but it worked as well as it could have. 

Ricken estimated that it took her team 85-95 hours spent to come up with the plan to have seniors walk through the graduation process. From brainstorming sessions to communication with seniors and parents, finding vendors to document the entire thing, editing, staging, set up and more, it proved to be a huge undertaking.

A Great Oak staff member makes senior Ethan Capreece laugh as he helps guide him through the virtual graduation ceremony process. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

In all, there were five sessions, with seniors showing up at scheduled times before going through the entire process, while more than two dozen Great Oak staff members volunteered for the event helped them along the way. 

They started Wednesday morning and finished Friday evening. In between, school student leadership, valedictorian and salutatorians recorded their speeches which will be weaved into the finished product and broadcast on a dedicated webpage devoted to the graduating seniors.

By the end of it, Herschel Ramirez, the athletic administrator and the man tasked with directing the entire event, said 706 of 751 graduates walked over the three days. 

While nobody, Ricken included, would say Great Oak’s virtual graduation ceremony was equal to the real thing, she said she is proud of how it turned out.

A senior student points to friends and family members who had to watch him graduate outside of school grounds during Great Oak High School’s virtual graduation ceremonies. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

“I think it went amazing,” Ricken said. “So much hard work was put into the plan by our leadership team and staff and because they showed up to help us execute this concept of a live walk across the stage that we could safely film and add to our video production. I think we pulled off a safe, intimate and celebratory feeling for each senior and their two family members.” 

Senior salutatorian Raymond Lee acknowledged just how different his graduation would be compared to those who came before him, but in the end, he was pleased with the result. 

“I think at the end of the day, it was still cool to have the experience,” he said. “I had set my expectations really low. When you compare it to that baseline, I do think that what the Great Oak administration has pulled off is pretty incredible. We could see that they were stressed out behind the scenes.

“It definitely sucks that we weren’t able to graduate like we usually would, but we are grateful to the people that still made this possible,” he said.

A senior student walks along the fence line as her parents walk alongside her as she prepares to graduate from Great Oak High School. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

Valedictorian Emika Saito also praised the administration for going the extra mile to support the students, mentioning the way the administrators drove around to each of the honored students’ houses to announce their awards. 

“Honestly, I am very glad that we’re having a ceremony in the first place, and it’s great that it’s virtual because a lot of my family lives in a different country and it’s just me and my parents here in the U.S.,” she said. 

“Compared to the alternative of straight-up not having graduation, while this isn’t what a lot of the seniors were hoping for their entire lives, it’s definitely a lot better than what it could be,” salutatorian Madeline Young said. “With the video, we all still get to watch each other. Even though it’s not in person, it’s still a way that we can capture the moment.

“I think it’s great that the school is trying to make it as good as they can for us,” she said.

Salutatorian Madeline Young, left, and valedictorian Emika Saito, right, listen as salutatorian Raymond Lee performs his speech for the cameras at Great Oak High School’s virtual graduation ceremony tapings. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

Earlier this week, after press time, other high schools in the Temecula school district and schools in Murrieta, Lake Elsinore, and Perris will conduct similar virtual graduation ceremonies. 

Since every school was tasked with creating a graduation ceremony that best represents each school based on guidelines sent down from district leadership, it is likely each will be different in their own way. 

In talking with people at the Great Oak event, nobody seemed to know exactly what other schools were going to do or how they were going to do it.

Senior Anthony Arreola holds up a sign with his name on it for video identification purposes before going up onstage to graduate officially. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

Uncertainty was a theme of conversation that seemed to permeate most of the conversations being had by people all across the country and world. 

While they were unsure, nervous and somewhat shell-shocked by what they were experiencing – Ricken insisted that her seniors all handled it very well. 

“I think once they arrived at the stadium and saw in real-time what we were doing, they became more excited about the concept of virtual graduation,” she said. “We played ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ for about 19 hours over three days. I dream in ‘Pomp and Circumstance.’ The song created the graduation feel, the staff created energy for our seniors to feed off. No matter which senior was being filmed crossing the stage, everyone present clapped and cheered for that graduate. 

“We have received amazing feedback from students and parents thanking us for the environment we created for them in the stadium,” she said. 

As each student came onstage, they smiled, looked around, posed for the camera with peace signs and fist-pumps, just like they would at a “normal” graduation.

Great Oak High School principal Aimee Ricken claps for a senior student who graduated recently during the school’s virtual graduation ceremony. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

According to Ramirez, that atmosphere was what they were hoping to accomplish. 

“What we’ve tried to do from the very beginning was the vision of giving our students as close to a traditional ceremony as possible,” he said. “The elements you’re seeing right now are a result of staying as close to the program as possible from previous years. All we’ve done is taken those pieces of what would have been done in front of an entire crowd and condensing it.”

Ramirez said that when the finished product is ready for viewing in June, it will be an interactive experience of a sort. 

“What was also important for us was the delivery method of putting it on a webpage that’s user friendly, you’re not sitting there looking through five hours of video. That’s not attractive,” he said. “For us, the deal was, if you could put it on a webpage and you could click and allow the user to pick what they want to see, it allowed us to have freedom within that delivery method to add things that were special to us.”

“We can’t wait to see the finished product,” Ricken said. “I’m sure it will be awesome.”

There will be some surprises in the presentation that seniors will not be expecting. It’s a way for the staff and administration to express how much they appreciate their students. 

“This class, more than any other that I’ve seen, has tried to unify and break lines amongst the different grades and groups – seniors bringing along juniors, making the freshman feel a part of the high school experience,” Ramirez said. “When you look at what these kids have gone through, this is about recognizing how different they are. During this time, when we’ve needed that selfless kind of leadership from them and they’ve given it, how can I not ask our administrators and teachers to serve and lead just like our seniors have?”

From left, Nischal Sinha, Madeline Young, Emika Saito and Raymond Lee toss their caps into the air during the taping of Great Oak High School’s virtual graduation ceremony. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

Ricken said she was proud of how her staff responded. 

“I am incredibly blessed to lead the staff at Great Oak High School,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anything they won’t do for students. We put our plan out to the staff, and as soon as we organized what we would need in the stadium to pull this off, they signed up. We had a backup waiting list of volunteers to fill in if someone couldn’t make it. We were careful to only allow so many volunteers into the stadium to maintain safe social distancing.”

Ricken, along with other administrators, and TVUSD school board member Dr. Kristi Rutz-Robbins wore robes and suits throughout the ceremonies over the three warm days. 

Ricken said she had to stand on the corner of the stage, wear a mask when off the stage and was unable to shake the hand or hug any of the students. That, she said was difficult, but “having the opportunity to see our seniors smile again was worth any discomfort of wearing a mask for hours and hours,” she said. 

Toward the end of the last day of ceremonies, the school held a special memorial celebration for a member of the senior class, Kaleb Dunlap, who died in December.

Colby Warrick holds a framed photo of his best friend, Kaleb Dunlap, and two diplomas after Great Oak High School held a special memorial ceremony for Dunlap, who died in December. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

“Me and Kaleb, we’d wake up every morning and go in early to meet with our math teachers before school,” Dunlap’s best friend, Colby Warrick, said. “We really, really tried hard this year to graduate, because we’ve struggled with school and with life and stuff and this was really a dream come true of ours to finally graduate.”

Standing just outside the gates of Great Oak’s stadium with his parents, Warrick held a framed photo of his friend and two diplomas. 

“It’s sad that he’s not here, but I know he’s here in spirit with me right now,” Warrick said. “To accept this award and to get through it, finally. 

“I felt him with me, I really felt like a strong sense in my heart that we were doing right by him and I felt him here,” he said. 

Jeff Pack can be reached by email at jpack@reedermedia.com