Free Cake Parade for Eugene Graduates

Here’s an idea we can borrow from another Oregon town, and we’ve got nine months to plan it. Klamath Falls invited every graduate from every local school — even kindergarten — to an early summer celebration for their achievement.

Their “Graduation Sensation” in June started with a parade and ended with free cake. In between, the town raised almost $20,000 to give away in scholarships. Even those who had no plans for entering college were eligible for local gift cards.

Organizers, who hope to make it an annual event in Klamath Falls, are trying to solve two problems in that community of 21,000. Their town has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the state. Almost a thousand graduates of their Oregon Institute of Technology were surveyed this year and almost none had plans to settle in the Klamath Basin.

Eugene’s graduation rates are not as dismal as Klamath Falls, but they still merit our attention. Putting a solution ahead of a problem is not always a bad thing, especially when it involves free cake.

Anything our community does to celebrate graduations will synchronize with University of Oregon President Michael Schill’s shrewd strategy to address rising tuition costs. Quite sensibly, he is focused on increasing the percentage of students who graduate in four years.

If a UO student can graduate in four years instead of five, that’s a tuition savings of 20 percent, not to mention the extra year of post-graduate income. Increasing graduation rates also ensures that students receive the benefit of the degree when they first enter the workforce. A college degree is still a good investment for most young people, but only if they matriculate.

If we can align the ambitions of Oregon’s flagship university with our identity as its host community, Eugene could do something that college towns rarely do. We could become the paradigm of a [BEGIN ITALICS] college city [END ITALICS], committed to learning and curiosity at our core. A party for all local graduates will help us grow into our best selves — collectively and individually.

It’s a rare young person who doesn’t need a tangible goal to focus his or her efforts. Watching citizens of Eugene line the streets to applaud their accomplishment might be just what our children need when their spelling or trigonometry homework seems daunting.

I’m sure there are thousands who would line the streets to celebrate these successes. Some might even reverse the usual roles and bring candy to throw at the paraders. Eugene’s prankster heritage has some tasty benefits.

The community’s benefit should not be overlooked. We’re all too familiar with the pangs that come with watching our best and brightest move away. They will go where they have the best opportunities, but if we send them away with a party, we better the chances they’ll want to return. There’s nothing like leaving a good last impression.

We’d be surprised how many students we have — or even how many schools! Eugene and Bethel School Districts produce the most graduates every year, but the University of Oregon and Lane Community College cannot be overlooked. Then there’s all our charter, private, Waldorf and Montessori schools. Don’t forget Pacifica University, Northwest Christian University, New Hope Christian College, and Gutenberg College. The list goes on.

We’re a learning community that loves a good party. Without the Eugene Celebration, we’re short on parades around here. Let’s celebrate one of the best parts of ourselves — our students.

Every student who will be spending the summer wondering what it will be like in the fall at a new school (or being finished with school) should be invited to hear the community’s congratulations. It doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. A simple cap-and-gown procession on 13th Avenue between downtown and the university would suffice.

It may be hard for many of us to remember what it was like finishing fifth or eighth or twelfth grade, but that’s all the more reason to make that memory a little richer for our young people. We can share their celebration, even if only the graduates get free cake.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.