As the school year comes to an end, students from high schools across the county have walked the stage to pick up their diplomas—but it might have cost them and their families a price to do so.
According to documents obtained by The Sentinel through the Maryland Public Information Act, the school system “requires” all seniors to pay a fee for a cap and gown, while schools also charge “optional” fees for events such as senior banquets, picnics and panoramas.
“Schools have a ‘basic’ package, which includes a cap and gown that are mandatory for graduation,” Shauna Battle, General Counsel for PGCPS, said. “There are no senior fees or dues for students who graduate from regional centers.”
Documents show the fees vary from school to school. At most schools the “mandatory” basic package, which includes just a cap and gown, costs $40, but at Eleanor Roosevelt it costs $45. At Surrattsville the cap and gown costs $70 while at Laurel and Oxon Hill it costs $50. At Parkdale the cap and gown costs $47 and at Largo it costs only $30. Northwestern Evening High School charges students $27.83.
According to the school system’s documents, each high school offers students the option to purchase packages in varying amounts and with different options.
Eleanor Roosevelt High School has a “deluxe” package featuring a class ring for $240. The package comes with 25 graduation announcements, a box of matching name cards, an ERHS senior shirt, a cap and gown package with a tassel and a class ring.
The “deluxe” package is Eleanor Roosevelt’s most expensive, and students may pay for it in two installments. Another package costs students $120 but does not include the class ring. In addition, yearbooks at Roosevelt cost $75 for a hardcover and $65 for a softcover. Students must also pay $40 for the class picnic, $25 for a graduation night celebration and $10 for senior portraits.
Meanwhile, at Bowie High School students are not offered any packages and instead must pay $50 to Jostens for their cap and gown.
Although some students can afford to pay graduation costs, it might not be so easy for others, said Julian Robinson, a parent of a senior at Central High School.
At Central, students can pay $40 for just the cap and gown, or pay for different packages. The “silver” package costs $80 and includes a tee shirt, “graduation fees” and a panoramic photo, while the most expensive “platinum” package costs $325 and includes 25 announcements, a yearbook and the end-of-year event.
“I’m not saying I can’t afford to pay for things. I can. But I do know folks who could barely buy the basic package,” Robinson said. “They managed to work things out, but still. It’s rough.”
Angela Smith, a parent of a senior at Bladensburg High School, said she has had to make tough choices for her child’s education experience. Smith does not want to pay the extra money, but she said she also wants her daughter to have the memories of finishing high school with her friends. She said she thinks it’s unfair the school system put her in the position to make choices between finances and allowing her child to have the best experience possible.
“I don’t like these fees or packages. I think they’re too much. I have to pay the bills, pay for prom and now pay for a picnic and other things. It’s tough. I’ve made sacrifices,” Smith said. “If you ask me, we shouldn’t have to pay for these things.”
At Bladensburg, a $125 package includes a tee shirt, hooded sweatshirt, panoramic photo and costs for “carnival/field day,” while a $400 package includes a yearbook, prom ticket and a ticket for Six Flags on graduation night.
Prince George’s County Public Schools officials did not respond to repeated requests for comments for this story.
Charly Carter, the Maryland director of Working Families, an organization dedicated to fighting for the values and needs of working households in Maryland, said some expenses are necessary for school and it is good to give children fun things to do before they graduate to make their experiences better.
However, Carter said, she can see a situation where some families are unable to pay for their children to attend events such as cookouts, trips or prom. Some families struggle to make ends meet, Carter said, and parents cannot always buy the best for their children.
“When you’re a family and you’re struggling financially, any unexpected expense is enough to destabilize your family,” Carter said. “I can understand where some families might be concerned about having to come up with that additional money.”
As a parent of a child who will one day be a senior, Carter said, she knows it is not easy to make decisions involving a child’s experience.
“You want your child to participate in all of the senior activities that year because those memories are what they hang on to,” Carter said. “Being realistic and saying ‘Can I really afford to take this money out of my budget?’ is tough. My heart just goes out to the parents who feel that.”
Steffanie Jackson, president of the Parent Teacher Association at Frederick Douglass High School, said that school allows students to decide “what they want their senior year to look like” during their freshmen year. The students are asked what activities they want to include in their senior year, if any at all, Jackson said. Students select the activities and the school staff lets them know what the costs are going to be.
Students are encouraged to participate in fundraising to offset the costs.
At Frederick Douglass, the $228 Eagle package includes the cap and gown, senior picnic, 25 name cards, 25 announcements, a panoramic photo, a tee shirt and other items. The $99 dollar Maroon package includes just the picnic and tee shirt, as well as the cap and gown. The cap and gown, individually, costs $40 and students can also pay separately for a $30 ticket to the picnic.
A flyer from the school notes that the cap and gown are “mandatory” to participate in graduation and also mentions that “senior dues are mandatory in order to participate in the senior picnic.”
“The money (students) contributes goes to their after-graduation experiences after they’ve met all of their criteria for graduating,” Jackson said. “The students can also offset that funding with fundraising. We encourage students to fund raise so that maybe they get a free prom ticket or they don’t pay senior fees. These are extra-curricular activities our students have that they agreed they wanted.”
Every person is aware of their particular financial situation, Jackson said, so if a family is in a position where a graduate cannot participate in a particular event at Frederick Douglass, then parents can contact the school system and discuss ways to help their children.
It is possible for students to be left out and get bullied, Jackson said, but if the family and their child advocate for their particular situation the school does its best to find a way to ensure the child is able to participate.
“We make a way. If we have to, we find a way. We find donors. There’s always a way to find for us to make sure that these children participate in, what we think, are important experiences at the end of their high school career,” Jackson said. “This is not about the affluent having access to things that our children who are struggling do not have. I can only speak for my school, but when we have children who are vocal about their needs we help them.”