BRUSLY — Graduating seniors in West Baton Rouge Parish donned their caps and gowns and marched down the halls of their old elementary and middle schools this week, reconnecting with former teachers who inspired them and hoping to do some inspiring of their own.
It's part of a what's became tradition in the school district over the past few years, one that's proved to be an emotional touchstone for teachers and students alike.
Graduating seniors from the parish's two high schools walk the halls of the district's elementary and middle schools they attended while students cheer them on and give them high-fives. The teachers standing nearby wear proud smiles as they are reunited with former students that many hadn't seen in more than than 10 years.
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"The younger students love to see the graduates, and the graduates love to go back and see the little kids," said Schools Superintendent Wesley Watts. "And our elementary and middle school teachers, a lot of the time, never get to see the fruits of their labor because the kids are so far removed from them. That's probably one of the best parts of it; when they get to see those kids come back that they taught."
Watts started the tradition, referred to as the Graduation March, three years ago with Port Allen High and then expanded it to include Brusly High a year later.
Watts said he was inspired to start the now popular ritual shortly after becoming superintendent in West Baton Rouge Parish in 2015 while trying to figure out ways to improve the district's graduation rate.
One of the ideas that connected with him was letting graduating seniors parade in front of younger students in the district as a way to encourage them to complete their high school education.
Watt's idea quickly became a celebrated tradition not only for the students involved, but the teachers, faculty and staff members in the district as well.
"The graduation walk is one of the coolest things I get to be apart of," said James Jackson, principal at Port Allen High School. "The schools we go visit really pump it up. The younger kids make signs, they're clapping. They make the (seniors) feel like rock stars. The kids feel so inspired. They get to see what the end of the road is supposed to look like for them."
PAHS Class of 2018 Grad Walk 🔵⚫️💙🖤 pic.twitter.com/grWdtedaYq— Port Allen High School (@PortAllenPels) May 16, 2018
Jackson on Tuesday escorted 104 of the seniors graduating this year from his school to the four elementary and two middle schools that feeder into Port Allen High.
And on Wednesday, approximately 70 seniors in the 2018 graduating class from Brusly High walked the halls of Brusly Elementary where its Pre-K through second grade students enthusiastically greeted their return.
Many of the seniors shared bittersweet reunions with the teachers who taught them the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.
"It's so rewarding. Some of them you thought never would make it, so to see them cross this milestone is amazing," said Sabra Smith, a kindergarten teacher who taught three of the graduating seniors when they attended Brusly Elementary.
One of her students, Austin Shirey, called her a "great teacher."
Laura Duhe, a first grade teacher at Brusly Elementary, was bombarded by five of her former students after Wednesday's march. She said a tear for some as they walked down the hall.
"It's very emotional," she said. "To see children you taught years ago develop into adults; it's like a flashback."
Brusly High senior Dara Badon, who will be attending Harvard University in the fall, said she got a lot of high fives on Wednesday from the kids, adding to the excitement she felt about re-visiting her old elementary school.
"It feels familiar, but it does feel smaller," Badon said. "It was great seeing the young people. It's really fun to be that person to give them excited about graduating one day."
The West Baton Rouge Parish seniors will be donning their caps and gowns again on Thursday and Friday to march once more — this time to collect their diplomas at their formal graduation ceremonies.