Saira Carreto felt uneasy as she pondered which of her family members she’d be unable to invite when she graduated from Chelsea High School.
For years, Chelsea High struggled to accommodate the many relatives who wanted to witness their graduate’s special day. Because of space limitations in the gym where the ceremony was traditionally held, the school allocated only five tickets per graduate. Even then, seats weren’t guaranteed.
So last year, Carreto and other students launched the Chelsea High School Outside Graduation Movement, hoping to persuade city and school officials to find a way to hold the ceremony outdoors.
On June 9, they got their wish. Under sunny skies, members of the class of 2019 received their diplomas on the football field at Chelsea Memorial Stadium.
“It felt so fulfilling for me to see all the families,” said Manuel Teshe, another senior involved with the project. “It was such a special moment.”
Over the past year, the students worked tirelessly researching the costs and logistics of their project, drafting student petitions, and meeting with members of the School Committee and City Council. In December, the students were overjoyed when the City Council approved $170,000 for a protective mat so that graduation could be held on the field.
Carreto said she couldn’t imagine being the first to graduate from high school in her family without her whole support system there. That includes her parents, her siblings, her grandparents, and her aunts and uncles.
“It’s sort of a no-brainer they were all supposed to go,” said Carreto, who was born in Mexico. “I live with them and they see me throughout my entire school year.”
Last year, Teshe recalled, hundreds of people had to watch a livestream of the graduation ceremony in the high school auditorium because all the seats in the gym were full. To him, it was disrespectful.
“We’ve been coming to this school for four years, we wanted our family members to see the fruit of our work not through a screen, but in real life,” Teshe said.
Teshe, who is from El Salvador, said the majority of students at Chelsea High come from cultures that prioritize extended family.
“We are immigrants and we want to see the big accomplishments of our family,” Teshe said. “My mom usually says that the accomplishments that my sister and I have made are her accomplishments as well. That’s her main motivation.”
Last year, US history teacher Ilana Ascher asked members of the 11th-grade class how they thought the school could improve. The answer was obvious: expand the guest capacity at graduation.
With the help of the Youth Activism Project, a nonprofit that empowers young people to solve local problems with community leaders, Ascher encouraged students to contact local legislators, the school board, and the rest of the student body to find a solution.
There were obstacles to holding the ceremony outdoors. The stadium’s football field and track, which were renovated for $3 million last fall, would have the eight-year warranty voided if large crowds, spiked heels, or chairs came into direct contact with the surface.
Although the School Committee supported the idea of holding graduation at the stadium, there was no money in the budget for a protective buffer.
Teshe went to city officials with a detailed proposal. Helping him was Gitu Degefa, a classmate who is from Ethiopia.
In her culture and for her family, graduation is a pivotal moment, Degefa said.
“I didn’t want any chance for them to see me in the auditorium,” she said. “This is something they’ve been waiting for for 12 years.”
Eventually, City Manager Thomas Ambrosino proposed a $170,000 protective mat to shield the school’s field for graduation, on the condition that it could be reused to hold larger events in the city. That way, revenue could be poured back into Chelsea, and the greater community could benefit from the expansive open space.
“Now there’s other things we can use it for,” Ambrosino said. “It was a relatively easy sell for City Council.”
Moving the ceremony to the stadium enabled students to bring three more guests each — a total of eight family members — to their graduation.
Teshe’s parents, who watched him come home night after night from City Hall meetings, were able to witness his hard work, too. Orgullo — “pride,” in Spanish — was the first word that came to their minds.
“That was the first time they understood. They said wow, ‘you did this?’ ” Teshe said.
With graduation over, the students are now looking forward to the fall.
Carreto plans to study political science at Centre College in Kentucky. Teshe will go to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania for pre-law. Degefa will go to Denison University in Ohio for neuroscience.
Still, this high school experience instilled a sense of civic empowerment that the three said they’ll never forget.
“A lot of us now have a different view about how the government works and how we can generate support and make a change,” Teshe said. “I don’t think I could replicate that.”
Annika Hom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.