Some of the Class of 2020’s youngest members donned bright red caps and gowns to celebrate graduation in the latest style: through the sunroofs of their parents’ cars.

Forty-five students from Casa del Carmen Preschool Academy received their hard-earned diplomas June 19 at a drive-through ceremony hosted by Holy Innocents Parish in Philadelphia.

Located in Philadelphia’s Hunting Park section, the academy is one of the many programs offered through Casa del Carmen, an archdiocesan Catholic Social Services (CSS) family service center that has assisted the Latino population of North Philadelphia since 1954.

Disney music and Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” march echoed through the parish parking lot as teachers cheered and waved balloons. In addition to their diplomas, students received kindergarten supplies, a graduation teddy bear and a t-shirt reading “we survived preschool and quarantine 2020.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, graduation and the latter half of the school year itself were “unorthodox” for the academy, said director Shari Gold.

But skipping the ceremony was not on option, she quickly added.

“We didn’t want to go without saying congratulations to our children and praising both them and the staff,” said Gold. “And it’s closure.”

She described the school’s teachers and staff as “passionate” about their program, which includes classes in science, math, reading, art and listening skills, all taught in both English and Spanish.

With a sizable waiting list, the academy has earned high marks from its funding and regulatory partners. The Pennsylvania Department of Education gave the school its highest rating in recognition of Casa’s responsive early education strategy and overall management.

When state COVID regulations took effect, Gold and her team moved quickly to create a hybrid learning model, using the ClassDojo education platform and printed materials, which were mailed to families.

Juliette Pavon strikes a pose during the June 19 Casa del Carmen Preschool Academy drive-through graduation. The school, which is highly ranked by state agencies, is operated by archdiocesan Catholic Social Services as part of a broad outreach to North Philadelphia’s largely Latino population. (Gina Christian)

In the process, parents developed a new appreciation for the work of early childhood educators, said Gold, who holds a master’s degree and has more than 25 years of teaching experience.

“I feel as though we’re more appreciated right now, because this job isn’t easy, and it’s not for everybody,” she said. “Education is going to be taken more seriously.”

The academy’s staff also worked to ensure students had access to healthy meals during the pandemic, which exacerbated Philadelphia’s ongoing issues with food insecurity.

During the past three months, Gold has been joined by instructors Iggy Ramos and Maria Oyola in distributing grab-and-go meals through an emergency food pantry at the school.

“That’s another way we’re touching the community, and we’re making sure our kids get what they need,” said Gold.

Staff are also keeping watch on students’ mental health in the wake of the pandemic, said Camille Crane, administrator of the Casa del Carmen family service center.

“It was scary for them, so we’re going to look at doing some mental health training for the parents, families and children,” said Crane.

With the region entering the green phase of COVID restrictions, the academy will offer a scaled-down summer camp on site, and in-person classes are expected to resume in the fall.

For now, though, parents and graduates are content to savor their accomplishments amid a school year like no other.

“It’s bittersweet, because this is such a great preschool,” said Marla Marin, whose daughter Juliette Pavon has attended Casa since age 3. “It’s very family-oriented, and she learned so much. She had a such a great routine here.”

Smiling under her mortarboard, Juliette added that she was “so happy” to receive her diploma at last, after weeks of studying at home.

“I’m glad to graduate,” she said.