This story was corrected on June 15, 2012. An explanation follows the story.
Patriot Center usher Michelle Pineiro, 20, will attend more graduation ceremonies during the month of June than most people see in a lifetime.
A Class of 2012 college graduate herself, Pineiro said she is hoping to attend all 23 high school graduations hosted at George Mason University's arena this June. Patriot Center staff members wear this merit like a badge of honor, showing they survived a full season of high school graduations.
“Last year my friend worked all the graduations and she got a little gold star by her name [on a bulletin board in the administration office],” Pineiro explained. “I want one too.”
GMU's Patriot Center has hosted high school graduations since the 1980s, beginning with four per year. Now, high schools from Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties vie for time slots at the center, which has become more popular as high schools grow too large to host graduations on their own campuses.
So far this June, the Patriot Center already has hosted some dozen or so high school graduations. Thirteen of the 23 this year are Fairfax County public schools.
“It's not our favorite few weeks. It's very hard on the building staff and the university itself,” Patriot Center General Manager Barry Geisler said. “It's a lot of work. Every graduation is special.”
Because of the traffic graduations bring to campus, the Patriot Center can host three graduations per day at the most.
On June 14, for example, the center hosted Robinson Secondary School at 9:30 a.m., Herndon High School at 2 p.m. and Lee High School at 7:30 p.m. The center charges $10,500 per school, which is paid for by each individual school, FCPS administrators said.
“It's like holding three basketball games or three concerts in one day,” said Scott Turyn, director of arena administration. “It's a special day for everyone who comes and we want to make sure it's special.”
He added that part of the Patriot Center's job is to keep disruptions minimal. This means aiding the high school staff with confiscating items like sound makers, bullhorns, balloons and beach balls.
“Schools have done a good job of stopping trends. Really anything that looks like fun, they'll take that away,” Turyn said.
As part of her job as an usher, Pineiro said she also is on the lookout for items that could detract from the ceremony.
“Right now, I'm watching for balloons,” she said. “Beach balls are common. Cowbells I really don't like. I would almost prefer the air horns. One lady, during one of the first graduations [this year], brought in three cowbells. Why?”
Patriot Center staffer Sandy Keim said she has seen hundreds of high school graduations in her 17 years at the arena. A former Robinson Secondary School math teacher, Keim said, “We've had 10 graduations so far and the kids aren't the ones bringing in the beach balls. It's the people in the stands.”
Although the beach ball is a perennial favorite at high school graduations, Patriot Center staff said they are on the lookout for more sinister trends having learned a tough lesson during the first year of graduations.
“The first graduation we ever did was Oakton High School in 1986,” Geisler said. “The kids had a giant Silly String fight and sprayed Silly String all over the chairs. Then they sat down and the body heat baked the Silly String into the chairs like glue. These chairs — they were green folding chairs — were basically new.”
After several attempts to remove the Silly String, Patriot Center staff turned to the FCPS system to either clean the chairs or pay for them, Geisler said. By summer's end the chairs were returned clean; however, the lesson was learned.
“Ever since June of 1986, if our staff sees a can of Silly String, we're on it,” he said.
General Manager John Besanko estimated in his 27 years at the Patriot Center he has seen nearly 500 ceremonies.
“This is a 10,000-seat arena that does shows all the time. We talk the same language with those tours. … High schools aren't exactly that way with us,” he said. “Each school wants to do something a little different and they all have a different person in charge and there's not much institutional knowledge there.”
Besanko contrasted the high school graduation experience with touring concert shows like musical pop-rap group LMFAO, which is coming to the Patriot Center on Monday.
“LMFAO is a touring concert production and it's the kind of thing where we're dealing with one touring entity that has answers and knows that they need,” he said. “With the high schools, we're dealing with a principal or a guidance counselor who hasn't done this before and doesn't have the answers for all of these production questions,” like, for example, how many chairs and stands the band needs.
Patriot Center staff said the bigger the high school, the more complicated the setup and ceremony.
Besanko said the Patriot Center staff also is ready for any medical issues that could come up during the ceremony.
“We'll occasionally get serious medical conditions. We've had several years where we've had graduates who are eight and a half months pregnant and are on a watch list,” he said. “Seizures are a common occurrence.”
Because more and more high schools are opting to hold graduations at the Patriot Center, competition for good time slots has increased, said FCPS Student Activities and Athletics Director Bill Curran.
FCPS hosts a lottery each year for time slots. All FCPS schools with graduations at the Patriot Center, except for Robinson Secondary, participate in the lottery. Robinson, which hosts three other high schools' graduations, is exempt and is awarded the first slot.
“We decided to do that a few years ago after we had a glitch where Robinson had a late graduation and their facilities were not available until after they'd graduated,” Curran said.
This year's lottery was held at the Gatehouse Administration Building in a conference room. Schools send a representative — often a principal — to watch the drawing. Much like a fantasy football draft party, a dry erase board is on display showing time slots. The first school pulled out of the hat gets first pick, and so on.
“It's kind of funny. Everyone folds their papers a certain way each time. In a sort of superstitious way,” Curran said. “The principal at West Potomac felt he had bad luck because he was picked last that first time, so he sent Aaron [Helmick, director of student activities] for good luck. And he got first pick.”
West Potomac Principal Cliff Hardison said getting an early pick at time slots is just as important.
“GMU is about the only large venue in the area and multiple schools want to access the resource,” he said. “As a high school, we are provided a time frame in which we can pursue gradation options. Last year, our draw was so bad — the last teacher workday in the evening the day after students left — that we looked at alternative graduation sites other than Mason. Three alternatives were presented students and they selected Hayfield Secondary.”
Westfield Principal Tim Thomas also has demonstrated bad luck during the lottery.
“Westfield has a history of ending up on the short end of the stick when it comes to lottery picks,” he said. “That said, despite our lousy luck, I do feel that the lottery is a fair process given the demand for the facility. Westfield has entertained the idea of a stadium graduation, but we've yet to take that leap of faith because of factors such as inclement weather … excessive heat and the restrictive nature of the coordination of a date for the All Night Grad Party — a strong Westfield tradition.”
And, although hosting high school graduations means a stressful few weeks for Patriot Center staff, most said working with and being available to the community was a service the center enjoyed providing.
“In my 17 years here, I haven't missed one,” said Keim, who said she gets a kick out of watching the precessions and all of the high-heeled shoes the female grads sport. “This year, at one of the [Loudoun] schools, the kids decorated the tops of their hats with the colors of all the schools they were going to next year … It's nice to see the community each year.”
This story was updated to reflect the correct spelling of Michelle Pineiro's name.