Photos from the Vault

SLO County’s best school graduation traditions, from American flags to roses

There is no such thing as a bad graduation.

The grads are all dressed in the same outfits, so a photographer can expect a few types of photos — a repeating pattern of caps and gowns, a sense of place or a moment that captures the emotion of the day.

Emotions on the field typically range from “Are we done yet?” to “Woo hoo, happy day!”

I have seen hundreds of commencements as a photographer since the mid-1980s and have recorded memorable moments at almost every school in San Luis Obispo County from Cal Poly to the California Youth Authority.

The continuation high schools share individual stories of students finding success, while the bigger schools have performances from bands and choirs.

As photojournalists, we try to find unscripted moments — something other than the sight of a senior accepting a stiff handshake while clutching a diploma.

Every school has its traditions and every class has a unique personality, so here are some subjective impressions. Click on the school name to see our graduation coverage in 2019.

Cuesta College, San Luis Obispo

The graduation season kicks off with Cuesta College and finishes with Cal Poly. Cuesta usually has the widest graduating age range, with the Class of 2019 ranging in age from 17 to 77. Graduates file into the Gilbert H. Stork Gymnasium, filled to the rafters with friends and family.

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Alexa Pendergrass celebrates as her name is called during the Nipomo High School graduation ceremony in June 2018. Photo by Joe Johnston 06-08-18 Joe Johnston

Nipomo High School

Nipomo has the single best tradition that every large school should emulate. They read each graduate’s name as he or she walks down the ramp. For seven seconds, the graduate can bask in their glorious achievement — and not have to shake hands or pose for a picture. Family and friends can cheer for their student and the student can respond.

Arroyo Grande High School

The Eagles do the same wonderful long ramp down from the dignitaries platform as Nipomo. Unfortunately, the names are read well before students get to the ramp, so the full impact gets diluted. However, there are plenty of chances for good photos of graduates from the largest school in the county.

A Shandon High School graduate hands a rose to a loved one during a 2015 ceremony.

Shandon High School

Small school graduations can do unique things. Shandon is smaller than many continuation schools in San Luis County, and all the small schools share the ability to share individual stories.

Shandon graduates have a wonderful moment when they take roses to the special people in their lives, including friends, family and faculty members. It is hard not to get misty eyed when a grad has a chance to say “thank you” to someone who has supported them.

In 1996, students Nolan Roddick and David Ochoa tossed off their caps and gowns and hopped on stage with fedoras, dark glasses and “Blues Brothers”-style suits and danced to the song “Soul Man” as the class smiled.

Coast Union High School, Cambria

In Cambria, they dim the lights in the gym partway through the graduation ceremony and have a slideshow of images of the graduates growing up. There is laughter and appreciation in the crowd as the photos appear on screen. It speaks to the power of photography.

Jacob Furbee gets a hug from English teacher Daniel Freeman as Morro Bay High School celebrated 181 graduates Thursday evening. David Middlecamp

Morro Bay High School

The coastal high school has a wonderful venue in sight of Morro Rock and cooled by the ocean breeze. Their graduation is one of the most tightly scripted, but there’s a section of the ceremony where the grads can thank faculty with a handshake, hug or high-five.

Atascadero High School

Atascadero High’s graduation can sometimes be less regimented than other schools, which usually results in joyful pictures. Spacing between rows offer a chance to see the faces of graduates, and the stadium offers good views from both sides for spectators.

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Graduates enter War Memorial Stadium at the start of the Paso Robles High School graduation. Joe Johnston

Paso Robles High School

Both Atascadero and Paso Robles have hillside grandstands that make for interesting backgrounds and give spectators a fine view. In addition, Paso Robles decorates the field with rows of American flags that look against the often blue, breezy spring skies.

Templeton High School

Graduation ceremonies are scheduled long before a weather report is available, and a heat wave in the North County can make a midday outdoor ceremony unbearable. Templeton marches late and avoids the heat, some years finishing with a fireworks show, but our print schedule these days doesn’t allow us to stay that late. Somehow, Templeton High, Morro Bay High, Coast Union High and Arroyo Grande High have been on the same wavelength for a few years making it a busy day for graduations.

San Luis Obispo High School

Campus construction made it difficult to get around, but the 2019 graduation ceremony made it a motif with students sporting yellow plastic hats as they walked in. Grads changed to traditional mortarboards as they sat for the ceremony. Choirs and bands have a chance to shine at graduations, and I really enjoyed performances at San Lusi Obispo High this year.

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Central Coast New Tech High School presented its 63 seniors for graduation, Saturday, June 8, 2019 in Nipomo. Riley Witmer does a jig on stage en route to receiving his diploma from school principal Sarah Butler. Laura Dickinson

Central Coast New Tech High School, Nipomo

This is the only school graduation I haven’t attended, yet, but photographer Laura Dickinson said it is a joyful, supportive small school graduation where everyone knows everyone else.

Mission College Preparatory Catholic High School, San Luis Obispo

There is a rich visual background as graduating students walk into scenic Mission Plaza, but one of the best traditions is a non-traditional thing they do.

When a graduation ceremony starts after 6 p.m., The Tribune’s search for a print deadline photo is accelerated. Fortunately, Mission Prep short-circuits the stress by having students pose for a group photo on the steps of the school before walking over to the ceremony. This usually finishes with the school photographer directing grads to toss their caps, making Mission Prep the only school in the county to toss mortarboards before they graduate.

Students this year had impressive speeches, written from the heart, and seemed ready to step into the future. Best wishes and congratulations to the Class of 2019!

A correction

Here’s a correction for my Photos from the Vault column about the San Luis Obispo library’s 125th anniversary. In 1955, San Luis Obispo spent $160,000 for their new library with a population of 16,000 for a cost per resident of $10. I should have used my scratch paper and checked my work. Thanks to reader Rick Robasciotti for calling this to my attention.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp
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