Paterson, New Jersey, has found a novel way to encourage high school graduation: no caps and gowns for 8th grade “graduation.” In a city facing increasing crime, staff shortages in schools, and 25% of the population in poverty, the school board has decided that celebrating graduation with caps and gowns in 8th grade may lead to some teens not pursuing high school graduation.
No regalia necessary
“Unfortunately, some people don’t push their children to get past the 8th grade ceremony,” commissioner Dr. Jonathan Hodges said. He and the other board members hope that by saving caps and gowns for high school, teens will no longer feel as if they have already “graduated” after 8th grade. Caps and gowns mark significant academic achievements, and many consider passing 8th grade a minor one. The board argues this formality may give the occasion a false sense of finality, making students feel that they’re finished with school.
The cap and gown as an equalizer
Some parents and teachers argue that the caps and gowns are similar to the uniform: They make everyone appear equal. Uniforms inspire appropriate behavior and inspire school pride, something a cap and gown are meant to inspire as well. School dress codes can be written in ways that are sexist or racist, while a cap-and-gown ensemble is simple. Commisioner Eddie Gonzalez also fears poorer students may face bullying if they attend 8th grade graduation without “cool” clothing. “They’re going to have some kind of graduation and buy new clothes for individuals because now they’re going to have to compete with the next kid who just showed up in a suit, shirt, and tie, versus the kid who’s going to school with sweatpants and sandals because they can’t afford anything,” Gonzalez said.
Are 8th grade caps and gowns to blame for the dropout rate?
Some school board members feel the elimination of caps and gowns in 8th grade will have minimal effect. “If a parent feels her child isn’t going to make it to 12th grade, or graduate 12th grade, taking away the caps and gowns is not going to change her mindset,” board member Valerie Freeman said. Even without changing 8th grade graduation, Paterson’s graduation rates have been rising, nearly returning to pre-pandemic levels. Superintendent of Schools Eileen F. Shafer pointed to the sad reality many of their students face as the cause of students leaving high school: poverty. “There were many students who simply needed to work in order to help earn money for their families as they faced the economic duress of the pandemic.” Indeed, many parents may feel that 8th grade may be their child’s only graduation as adult responsibilities may come too soon.
Nationwide, fewer students are dropping out of high school. Paterson, New Jersey, has combated its dropout rates by having administrators and teachers reach out to failing students, helping them get back on track to graduate. The New Jersey Board of Commerce participates in Jobs for America’s Graduates New Jersey initiative, part of the national Jobs for America’s Graduates program, which helps students navigate working while finishing high school. Many high schools have internship programs to help students make the most of learning and working. Trauma is another reason students may drop out, leading to teachers using trauma-informed teaching when necessary.
8th grade graduations—do we really need them?
For some parents, an 8th grade graduation is just plain silly. Many areas of the United States have never had caps and gowns for 8th grade graduation, let alone a ceremony for 8th grade at all. A quick search turns up many middle schools requesting students dress “nicely,” but requesting they refrain from “formal wear.” Even former president Barack Obama had an opinion on 8th grade graduations: “Let’s not go over the top. Let’s not have a huge party. Let’s just give them a handshake. You’re supposed to graduate from eighth grade.”