Denver seniors reflect on a school year cut short that ended with a drive-through graduation

Martin Luther King Jr. Early College held a special kind of ceremony, and we were there running a photo booth.
5 min. read
Jennifer Lugo poses for a cap-and-gown picture during a graduation celebration at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in Green Valley Ranch. May 8, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Martin Luther King Jr. Early College students ordered their caps and gowns before the coronavirus pandemic unexpectedly ended their in-person school year. They went home for spring break in March and never returned. A normal graduation ceremony would not happen at the normal time of year, either.

So when it was time for students to pick up the ceremonial garb, the school's teachers and administrators wanted to do something special. They set up a drive-through graduation ceremony, and students grabbed their gear as they cruised past teachers and staff, most of whom students hadn't seen in person for months. At the end of the drive, those who wished to have their portrait taken parked to smile in front of our lens.

Nayelli Montoya, Briana Cruz-Flores, Lesli Ruiz, Allyssandra Padilla, Jermee Ervin and Kolina White. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Alicia Almodovar. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Alicia Almodovar arrived for her picture at the end of the ceremony. She didn't realize the gravity of the moment until she was nearly through the gauntlet of balloons and beaming educators.

"It went by really quick. And once you reached the end then it hits you," she said. "This is actually the last time I'm going to see them."

High school is kind of like that, too, she said. But she's looking forward to her next chapter. She plans to attend UC Boulder in the fall where she'll begin to figure out how she'll achieve her dreams.

"I would like to make some sort of impact on the world," she said, "leaving it a better place."

Valeria Villicana and Efrain Rodriguez. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Giselle Flores, Zuri Bryant and Jasmine DeSantiago. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Almodovar said her time at MLK helped prime her for an interest in equity. Almost 96 percent of the school's some 1,200 students are people of color. Almodovar said watching so many of her classmates succeed, despite a "stigma" that they have to prove themselves to society at large, has deeply affected her perspective on life.

Some of her classmates said they expect there will be some kind of formal graduation ceremony once changing social distance rules allow it. Mindi Onwuegbu, a school spokesperson, said administrators are aiming for December.

For now, many were grateful for the special event on a windy Saturday afternoon, even if it wasn't what they expected before the world changed.

Twins Tyler and Taylor Pulliam. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Zyeria Johnson catches her hat during a sharp gust. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Zyeria Johnson said she was grateful to her teachers.

"This whole thing symbolizes care," she said.

She's planning to attend Jackson State University to study business and education.

Arianna Penny, Ayesha Sanchez and Dasha George. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Alondra Hernandez, who carried her six-week-old son, Mateo, said it was an emotional experience. This graduating class is "so close," she said, so she was glad she had this moment to see everybody at once.

"It's really thoughtful," she said. "Its really special. I still want to cry about it."

Hernandez said she's headed to UC Denver to pursue a career in nursing.

Alondra Hernandez and her son, Mateo. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Lenia Evans and Bella Aragon. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Joshua Duran said the drive-through was "better than a graduation ceremony."

"This was quick, this was celebratory, this was like -- this is crazy," he said.

He'll attend CSU in the fall where he plans to major in political science.

But Briannna Bañuelos said she was still a little upset. Saturday was a "bittersweet moment," she said. It was more than the usual feelings that accompany the end of an era. She wanted to walk across the stage she'd always imagined.

"We've been in school for 12 years," she said. The pandemic "kind of ruined everything for us."

Bañuelos plans to become a nurse.

Carnell Sanders' mother, Shenia Ford, straightens his cords for a picture. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Dwayne Floyd Jr.'s "adopted grandma" Barbara Hatch helps him get ready for showtime. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Some said the event didn't carry the emotional weight they needed to really feel finished with high school.

"I always just wanted to walk across that stage to let my family know I did it," said Zuri Bryant, whose mom was at the ceremony. "I am bummed out."

Bryant will attend Metro State University to study athletic training.

Elizabeth Rhenique Reyes, Brayen Herrera and Arlene Arreola. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Others said they wished they could hug their teachers and friends. While they may be able to attend a regular graduation sometime later, a lot of students aren't taking this moment to say goodbye for granted.

Jennifer Lugo said nobody realized they'd completed their last real day at school until weeks after they went home for spring break.

"We never thought about it," said Lugo, who plans to attend Metro and study criminology. "We thought it was just going to be something that passed by. It ended up being the rest of our lives."

Shaylynn Coleman and Marlene Rodriguez. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Tosjanae Bonds, Carlos Gonzalez and Miriam Morales. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Joshua Duran strikes a pose. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Hugo Franco, Jo'Coi Byrd and Alejandro Rodriguez. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Jayda Alvarez and Michelle Castro. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Luis Cabrera, Talaysia Jackson and Briannna Bañuelos. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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