DONALDSONVILLE — Homecoming has come to mean something new for Donaldsonville High.
Last year was the first year that alumni from decades past made a concerted effort to bring floats to the school parade that always rolls on the Friday afternoon before the school’s homecoming game.
There were floats from about five alumni classes last year, a good showing for a first-time alumni effort, organizers said.
This year, that number doubled, with alumni from more than 10 graduating classes taking part in the celebration with their own floats, alongside those of local businesses and organizations.
And alumni from more than 35 classes — over four decades from 1970 to 2014 — participated in a variety of events during homecoming week.
It’s come to be not just about homecoming.
“This brings light to the community. There have been so many tragedies” in recent years, said Mary Frank, of Donaldsonville, class of 1983, referring to a number of homicides that shattered the town last year and early this year.
“This is uplifting it, building (the community) up. Everybody is so involved,” Frank said of the new focus by alumni on their alma mater.
Three homicides in the summer of 2014 and in the first quarter of this year have shaken the small city of some 7,400 residents.
One of the homicide victims was Brandon Augusta, a 15-year-old who would have been a freshman at Donaldsonville High last fall. This past June, three teens and one adult were arrested in the August 2014 beating death of Brandon.
In the weeks following his death, an associate principal at Donaldsonville High came up with the motto “Product of Donaldsonville,” a campaign to build students’ hopes for their futures.
The campaign started with T-shirts bearing the slogan awarded to outstanding students. Now, Daryl Comery, associate principal of the school’s Freshman Academy program for ninth-graders, and his wife, Taina, have formed Product of Donaldsonville Community Outreach LLC, which has adopted the Freshman Academy.
The company is exploring ways to help the freshmen begin a T-shirt printing enterprise and has purchased equipment for it, to raise funds for an end-of-the-year school trip, Comery said.
“We want to teach them how to be their own bosses,” Comery said of the ninth-graders. “It’s not too often people talk about being an entrepreneur.”
Comery, a 1995 graduate of Donaldsonville High, said he’s seen that “community perception of the school is not always positive. They think we’re a failing school. But we’re not.”
The school, he said, is rated a C school by the state Department of Education. In the latest state report card for high schools, released Thursday for the 2014-15 school year, Donaldsonville High’s grade score — still a C — jumped more than five points, going from 70.5 to 75.9.
Along with the three other high schools in Ascension Parish, Donaldsonville High exceeded both the state and national average for graduation rates.
At Donaldsonville High, that graduation rate has now climbed to 82 percent — a tremendous gain for a school that has one of the highest poverty rates in the state, said Principal Marvin Evans.
A few years ago, Donaldsonville High created a graduation task force, which tracks students’ academics throughout their senior year and provides resources for at-risk students, Marvin said.
Alumni have come to be an important part of students’ success, Evans said, often funding the cost of ACT exams and career field trips.
“We consider them to be our stakeholders,” he said of the alumni.
Homecoming is now one of the more visible signs of their support.
Last year, Janell Bazile Nelson, of Baton Rouge, Donaldsonville High class of 1992, put out a Facebook call for an “alumni roundup,” inviting Donaldsonville High graduates to return for homecoming.
More than 500 alumni, many from out of state, returned for homecoming, she said. She expected that number to be close to double that this year.
“The take-away message is to let the students know we’re their cheerleaders,” Nelson said.
“The students are very excited about what the community is doing, the steps they’re taking to make them feel the love and know it’s OK to have good, clean fun,” said Tanesha Mitchell, of Donaldsonville, class of 1993.
“The excitement is through the roof,” Mitchell said Thursday afternoon, before a first-time alumni pep rally that night.
On Friday afternoon, excitement was building as floats lined up on Division Street, not far from the downtown historic district.
“This is a new thing for us,” said Reneé Washington, of Donaldsonville, of her fellow class of ’79 alums as they waited for the parade to begin.
“Actually, we got jealous last year, because we weren’t part of things. We made a point to be part of it this year,” she said with a laugh.
Clem Brown, of Donaldsonville, organized the 1979 class participation.
“I live here. I see them every day,” he said of his former classmates. “I was stopping them one by one and asking to put it on Facebook” to get the word out about the class of ’79’s return to homecoming.
The parade crossed Marchand Drive, the main road through downtown Donaldsonville, and traveled several blocks east to Floyd Boutte Memorial Stadium on Clay Street, where tailgaters had been set up since early Friday and the Donaldsonville Tigers defeated the Glen Oaks Panthers, 38-28, later that day.
Trinease Sanders, of Donaldsonville, class of 2005, said she’s been touched this year to meet alumni from the year 1986, the year she was born.
“You’re seeing everybody in the community, all tied together,” she said.