“Graduation” is a word usually associated with high schools and colleges. Even at the middle school level, moving up is usually referred to as “promotion” or “advancement.”
But for a quarter of a century, prekindergarten-age children have been “graduating” from Ms. Wanda’s class at Bethania Preschool in Solvang, and the tradition continued Friday when 16 children received diplomas before a crowd of more than 75 parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and friends.
In keeping with the tradition. Atterdag Bowl in Hans Christian Andersen Park was decorated with an island theme — covered with foil palm trees, cardboard pink flamingos, parrots, toucans, flowers, ukuleles and tropical fish, twine fishing nets, spinning pinwheels, colorful streamers and mylar balloons.
Preschoolers in aloha shirts and brightly colored dresses, some with oversize dark glasses and flipflops, donned shiny “grass” skirts to hula dance and sing for the audience.
Then, as their names were called, they crossed the stage to receive their diplomas from Ms. Wanda, pausing for photos while holding up a sign proclaiming what they hope to be when they grow up before returning to their seats.
Their signs said things like: A dentist. A fireman. A construction worker. A police officer. A princess at Disneyland. Batman.
The class of 2017 consisted of 16 graduates. Well, 17, if you count the honorary graduate. That would be Pooh Bear, whose name was called and who was carried across the stage by one of the young graduates to receive his diploma.
“He went home overnight with each child,” Ms. Wanda explained. “The children keep a journal, and we got to read about his adventures every day. So he was our guest of honor, our honorary graduate.”
After all the rolled pieces of “parchment” had been handed out, there was one last time for the little graduates to “sound off” with a salute to Ms. Wanda, who also reminded them not to forget to go pick up their framed graduation photos after the ceremony.
“Ms. Wanda” is Wanda Piatt, who’s been teaching preschool since 1994, all but about three of those years at Bethania Preschool. For most of that time, she’s been sending her young charges off with an island-themed graduation ceremony.
“I’ve been doing this now for 25 or 26 years,” Piatt said. “I hope to be doing it a few more.”
Piatt said the graduation ceremony is something that sticks with the children, a fond memory that helps them also remember their year at the preschool.
“I’ll see kids I had in high school — and there’s one in college — at the market, and they’ll come up and ask me if I recognize them,” she said. “I’ll say, ‘I don’t know. Tell me what you did in the classroom.” They tell me, and then I put it together.
“Everyone does something that imprints on you, some little thing they do,” she added.
Piatt paused the conversation to autograph a little white stuffed dog wearing a mortarboard for one of her young graduates.
“Ms. Wanda goes above and beyond,” said Chris Brown, pastor of Bethania Lutheran Church in Solvang, which sponsors the preschool. “She comes in every Saturday to get her room ready for the next week. She’s very clearly called to this work.”
Finished with the autograph, Piatt gives a lot of credit to the parents, not only for the children’s success in class but also the success of the annual graduation ceremony.
“When we come down her for practice, this is all barren,” Piatt said, sweeping her hand around to indicate the riot of colorful decorations covering Atterdag Bowl. “I buy all the decorations, and the parents come by, pick them up and sneak down here to decorate.
“When we were coming down the hill this morning and the children saw this, their eyes just lit up,” she said. “They were so excited.”
The ceremony is not only a highlight of the children’s preschool careers, but it’s also a highlight for family members.
“I had no idea this was a big deal,” said Sergio Ibarra, who was there to see his niece Scarlett graduate. “Actually, it’s pretty amazing.”
Equally amazing might be that Ibarra drove all the way from San Diego to Solvang just to watch Scarlett receive her diploma. In fact, he said, 14 family members were there for the ceremony.
That’s not an uncommon reaction among family members who are not familiar with the tradition.
“It’s pretty exciting. Good stuff,” said Michael Friend, who with wife Elizabeth drove from Lompoc to watch granddaughter Gracie graduate. “She’s excited, too.”
“It’s a much bigger and special deal than I really thought they were going to do,” Elizabeth said. “They made it really special.”
And how many from their family came to the graduation?
“A bunch,” Michael said with a laugh as Elizabeth counted them up.
“We have 13 family members here,” she said. “Most of them are from Solvang and Buellton.”
Piatt, who speaks with an animated sense of wonder that calls to mind the preschoolers she teaches, doesn’t appear to be losing any steam after a quarter century of graduating preschoolers.
In fact, she said they are really what keeps her going.
“They’re so fresh,” she said enthusiastically. “They haven’t been spoiled by everyone’s ideas yet. They keep me smiling all the time. They’re the best thing in the world.”