Father Joel Konzen, S.M., principal of Marist School, front, during a previous baccalaureate service at the Brookhaven school.
Father Joel Konzen, S.M., principal of Marist School, front, during a previous baccalaureate service at the Brookhaven school.

High school graduation is a time rife with traditions.

The cap and gown, the music, the honors, and for many, the baccalaureate service, an inspirational program typically held a few days prior to the graduation ceremony.

Because baccalaureate services traditionally have a religious element, local high schools take different approaches. Some public schools choose to stay away from baccalaureate services, leaving the program for parents to organize at an outside venue. Other schools remove the religious aspect of the baccalaureate service and host a secular program.

Baccalaureate programs are meant to honor the achievements of the senior class and reflect on their futures before graduation. Each school is different, but baccalaureate services typically include a keynote speaker from the wider community, student speakers or performers, and sometimes words of prayer from religious leaders.

North Springs High School in Sandy Springs has an optional baccalaureate service that is organized by a parent committee. This year, the service was held at Dunwoody United Methodist Church.

“It’s non-denominational and it’s an inspirational send-off for our seniors,” said Tochie Blad, a member of the parent baccalaureate committee. “We want to let them know that the community comes together to recognize them.”

She said this year, a rabbi and a reverend spoke at the service.

“We do try to open the service up to faith communities,” Blad said. “In the past we’ve been able to find other faiths to give a prayer or invocation.”

Blad said students are also involved in the service, by singing, speaking or playing instruments.

“It’s a venue where so many of them can be showcased,” Blad said.

Other schools, such as North Atlanta High School in Buckhead, prefer to hold secular baccalaureate-type programs at the school.

“I know all Atlanta public schools somewhere along the line renamed baccalaureate to ‘Visions of the Future,’” said Nan Hunter, graduation coordinator at North Atlanta High School. “We’ve been doing it ever since.”

Hunter said the program was named because it’s an opportunity for students to consider how far they’ve come and envision what they can be in the future. She said students audition to speak or perform.

“At graduation we have our valedictorian and salutatorian. But at Visions, anyone can try out,” Hunter said. “You don’t have to be the top of the class. It’s really kind of everybody can have the spotlight if they want to. It’s about the class.”

Like North Atlanta, Dunwoody High School’s program is not religious in nature.

“That’s why they changed it from baccalaureate to ‘pre-commencement,’” said Debra Hodge, one of the senior class sponsors.

But for many private schools, religion is an important part of the graduation experience.

Father John Walls, director of campus ministry for the Marist School in Brookhaven, said the Catholic school traditionally holds a baccalaureate mass Friday night, followed by a graduation ceremony Saturday morning.

“We’re a religious school. Faith is an essential part of your life so let’s celebrate that. Then we’ll celebrate your hard work with a diploma,” Walls said. “It’s balancing the two.”

Walls said the baccalaureate mass is one of the highlights of the year for the faculty, too, because they get to know the seniors well during their time at the school.

“When we come to graduation, the pinnacle of a young person’s high school life and career, we take time to celebrate that in a religious way,” Walls said.