DALTON, Ga. — Literal dark clouds overhead and the figurative dark clouds of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic couldn't dampen the enthusiasm of City Park School's staff, families and fifth-graders during a drive-thru graduation celebration on Friday.
"The biggest driver for this was simply that we wanted to see our kids one more time," said Kim Rhyne, City Park's principal. Due to the pandemic, students had been forced into distance learning since mid-March, so this was the first time students and staff were together in months, and — for fifth-graders graduating to Dalton Middle School next year — the final time, as well.
"We're the biggest elementary school in the (system), and we have about 120 fifth-graders, (so) we're losing a lot of wonderful students," Rhyne said. All of City Park's fifth-grade teachers, as well as support staff and administrators, attended Friday to greet those students one last time, and "I know everyone appreciated the chance to say goodbye."
The drive-thru graduation "was cool, because I got to see my teachers again," said Francisco Ortiz, a graduating fifth-grader. He knows he'll miss his teachers, especially Edgar Nava, "who always helped me with my math."
Ortiz is looking forward to at least one piece of middle school, said the trumpet player. "I'm excited to try out for the band."
Andrea Najera is relieved the middle school has lockers, so she'll no longer have to "carry around so much stuff in my backpack," she said with a laugh. She's also "excited for more clubs and to meet new people."
Multiple students received commendations during the drive-thru, including the principal's awards, which went to Andrea Hernandez and Dylan Trejo.
Each year, City Park's principal selects one boy and one girl for that laurel, and "I look for students who are respectful of everyone, well behaved, and represent what City Park means to everybody," Rhyne said. Since Rhyne took over as City Park's principal two years ago, Hernandez has consistently proved to be perhaps the school's most-welcoming student — including to Rhyne, when she joined City Park from Blue Ridge School — and "she wants to succeed, and she does her best in every class."
Trejo "is always doing things for other people and the first to reach out to new students," Rhyne said. "He's a good, hard worker who wants to do his best in school."
Rhyne also created a new award, which honors the student who best exemplifies Dalton Public Schools' mission of providing "world-class learning that prepares students for success in college, career, and civic life." Najera received that designation.
Among her accomplishments, Najera was the school system's fifth-grade winner of the Young Georgia Author contest this year, Rhyne said. "She's an amazing young lady."
Najera was particularly proud of that triumph, as "I love to write and always have," she said. For that competition, she wrote a fictional piece about food, including a chocolate cake, fed up with being consumed by humans and deciding to turn the tables.
Eventually, "they realize their purpose is to be eaten, they shrink back to normal, and have peace," she said with a smile. "I just always thought, 'What if food was alive?'"
For other aspiring writers, Najera advised: "Work hard, and have fun."
"Don't worry too much," either, she said. "Just try your best."
While Najera lamented missing a traditional fifth-grade graduation "in the auditorium with everyone there," as well as a final walk around the school, she acknowledged "this is the best we can do" under these circumstances, and "it's pretty fun."
City Park's teachers are a main reason she so thoroughly enjoyed her time at the school.
"They're really nice, and it's fun, not an ordinary school," she said. "We do a lot of projects, and it's like a family (because) of the bonds we have."
The end of the year is "one of those bittersweet days," Rhyne said. "We've seen lots of tears from teachers and students, and a lot of smiles, as well."
Some of those tears came from graduating fifth-grader Iurhixe Martinez, who attributed her heightened emotions to this being her final time at the school.
"I've been here since pre-kindergarten, and I'm not going to come back," she said. Like many students, Martinez feared bullying at certain points of her elementary school career, but that never happened, as "I had great friends and teachers."
Perhaps her favorite teacher was Dakota Vann, who was very popular during the drive-thru graduation, with several students insisting he pose for photos with them, sign their "Class of 2020" shirts, and even share a hug.
"If I had (a tough time), he would understand," Martinez said.
Creating those lasting relationships with students "means everything to me," Vann said. "That's why we're here, to make an impact on their lives."
Vann concentrates on making his math classes "fun, by getting them up and moving, doing hands-on (work), and having lots of games, because if they're having fun, they'll learn more," he said. "They won't learn from a teacher they don't like."
And he appreciated seeing his students one last time as much as they were grateful to see him.
"I hate the way the year ended, and we wanted to get back here to say goodbye," he said. "We got closure, and we got to see them one more time before summer."