Clifton Public School District Takes Over Project Graduation

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Update April 21, 2022: The district has set up a SnapRaise account for anyone who would like to contribute to Project Graduation. All donations will help ensure that every eligible senior who wants to go, can.

This year, like last, the Clifton Board of Education will be funding Project Graduation, a long-standing tradition open to all graduating seniors from Clifton High School. Previously it was hosted by volunteer-run Clifton Against Substance Abuse and before them, the high school’s Home School Association.

Sparked by a series of post-graduation tragedies in a Maine school district, the very first adult-chaperoned graduation party alternative was held in 1980. Project Graduation proved so successful that by 1986, all 50 states were hosting their own events. These events offer newly graduated seniors a safe, drug and alcohol free space to celebrate together as a class. In Maine, these events brought graduation night teen fatalities down to zero in just a few years. Members of Clifton News and Community on Facebook agree that Clifton has been hosting Project Graduation events since 1989, when they went to Action Park in Vernon, NJ. Lifelong resident and 1989 graduate Jeffrey Kracht says, “It was a super fun and memorable night.” For many years it was hosted by the school’s Home School Association, which held fundraising events and orchestrated the considerable logistics.

In 2014 the Clifton High School HSA handed Project Graduation over to a city-affiliated group, Clifton Against Substance Abuse (CASA). This organization, whose mission is to provide awareness and education about substance abuse and to eliminate the stigma associated with it, receives funding from the city and organized their own fundraisers to reduce the per-pupil cost of attending Project Graduation events. At a Board of Education meeting on February 20, 2020 – shortly before everything shut down due to the pandemic - Tom Whittles, CASA president, came before the board to share the struggles that his organization was facing with regard to this huge event. Changes in state regulations regarding how they could fundraise were making it challenging to find ways to generate the needed funds. “It’s an expensive event for the students,” he said, “but I believe it’s a very worthy event.” Mr. Whittles asked the board to consider funding Project Graduation, with help from the HSA and from CASA, which would continue to fundraise on their own, separate from the city. He said that students pay for half of their own ticket, which runs roughly $90. At the time, Project Graduation was held at Funplex in East Hanover. The large size of our graduating classes greatly limits the possible venues for this event and for many years, Funplex had been the location of choice. The city further limited CASA’s ability to run this event by initiating a requirement for CASA to put out a bid for venues, pursuant to NJ Public Contracts Law. Given the scarcity of large enough and local enough locations, simply finding other venues to collect bids from was a challenging demand. Mr. Whittles mentioned the possibility of using the American Dream Mall but didn’t want Clifton to be the test subjects for running a Project Graduation there. He told the board that they were looking at a deficit of about $9-10,000 for the class of 2020. Ultimately, because of the pandemic, there was no event that year.

CASA, Mr. Whittles went on to say, has other obligations to the city but spends a majority of their time and energy dealing with the huge undertaking which is Project Graduation. He proposed that the district create a group, made up of district administrators, students, CASA members, and HSA members, and “have this control here, at the Board of Education level.”

At that same meeting, Commissioner Fahim Abedrabbo suggested that it would be a good thing for the district to take over Project Graduation to ensure its continued success. “We should do something,” he said during his comments. Months later, at the May 21, 2020 meeting, Commissioner Joe Canova again addressed this topic and proposed that the district “foot the bill for these students.” Later in the same meeting Mr. Canova brought it up again during New Business and Commissioner Jim Daley, Finance Committee Chair, responded that “there’s no problem with that” and indicated that they were speaking with the board attorney about how best to proceed.

The Covid-19 pandemic caused most end-of-year events to be cancelled or held as virtual events. Project Graduation was one such victim and there was no event for the Class of 2020. The following year, the pandemic continued to cause disruptions, namely to any chance at meaningful fundraising efforts. In order to ensure a successful event for the Class of 2021, the Board of Education, by unanimous vote, opted to foot the bill for a total cost to the district of $42,673. To put this in perspective, the annual budget for the Board of Education is around $210,000,000. The money put towards last year’s Project Graduation represented just .02% or two hundredths of one percent of the budget.

In August of 2021, Dr. Robertozzi said, our city manager Nick Villano told him that the city would no longer be able to sponsor Project Graduation with CASA. If it were to continue for the following year, the district would need to fully take it over. Luckily, Dr. Robertozzi and the Board of Education had planned for the possibility of the district needing to fund it again in 2022 and had it written into the budget for the current school year.

The budget line is set at a maximum of $100,000, though Dr. Robertozzi anticipates only needing about half of that based on participation data from previous years. He said that the money came from a co-curricular line in the budget and the superintendent thinks that the district will probably continue to host going forward unless another organization with fundraising capabilities steps forward. Dr. Robertozzi welcomes the continued help of CASA and the HSA to whatever extent those organizations are able and willing to participate.

Besides the district running Project Graduation, another big change is in the venue. For the first time ever, our graduating seniors will be spending graduation night at the American Dream Mall in Rutherford. Included in their all-night affair are the Nickelodeon theme park, the ice rink, the enormous water park, black light miniature golf, and more. Because our district is so large – and because our district already has a relationship with the venue after the Mustang Marching Band performed at the Grand Opening in 2019 – the district was able to secure a much lower-than-usual price per pupil and the privilege of having the entire space to ourselves. Typically American Dream will host several schools at once for Project Graduation celebrations.

The district will be putting out the call for adult chaperones some time in the near future; the mall requires a certain ratio of adults to children with an anticipated need of at least 33 chaperones. These can be teachers and other staff, parents of seniors, or other community members who just want to help our new graduates have a great, safe night. All chaperones must be approved by the Board of Education.

Finally, as Mr. Whittles said in that February meeting two years ago, it’s important that the students contribute something to the cost of Project Graduation. It gives them a sense of ownership and commitment to making it a great night. Dr. Robertozzi agrees and this year’s seniors will be asked to contribute a small amount, as yet to be determined. They have opportunities to fundraise through CHS to help defray their own cost obligation. Members of the community are also welcome to donate money to help sponsor a child who may have difficulty paying for their ticket. Dr. Robertozzi said that the district is working on a means of accepting donations electronically so please watch for those details. In the meantime, you can drop off your cash donations in a sealed envelope marked “Project Graduation” at the main office at CHS if you’d like to help. If there is a specific student you’d like to pay for, you may include their name on the envelope. All non-directed donations will be used to help any student who expresses a need. No student will be excluded due to financial need. Please reach out to Mr. Hamdeh (ahamdeh@cliftonschools.net) if you need help.

Graduation is scheduled for Friday, June 24th. Students will board the buses around 10 pm and will stay at the mall until 4:00 am, when they’ll take the buses back to CHS. It promises to be a fantastic, memorable night for the Class of 2022.

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