WASILLA — Cottonwood Creek Elementary School faculty members decorated the grounds and lined up near the main entrance to welcome students and their families to a car parade serving as the fifth grade promotion ceremony.

Teachers and staff shared bittersweet exchanges with the students, savoring the face to face interaction with social distance.

The event took a long time to decorate and set up. Physical education teacher Laurie Ethridge said her colleagues’ efforts were well worth it.

“They worked their tails off getting this together this morning,” Ethridge said.

As “Kidz Bop” boomed from the sound system, Central Mat-Su Fire Station trucks and an Alaskan State Trooper rang out their sirens to welcome each vehicle in the parade.

“It’s not quite the same but it’s close enough,” substitute teacher Janet Gallardo said.

Gallardo retired from the district 10 years ago. She taught at Cottonwood and currently substitutes there. She was very pleased with the turnout and inspired by the feeling of camaraderie in and out of the school that made this whole thing happen.

“I’m amazed,” Gallardo said. “It’s like the whole community is celebrating,”

It wasn’t just fith grade teachers at the promotion. Teachers from all of the other grades got the chance to see the students who taught them and watched them grow.

Teachers danced and waved at the vehicles with excitement. Some of them shook pom poms while others handed out free pizza from Pizza Hut.

“It’s super fun. These kids deserve it,” Ethridge said.

Ethridge said there’s typically a big event centered on the fifth graders’ transition into middle school with a dance inside the gym.

“It’s a big rite of passage to move into middle school,” Ethridge said.

Ethridge said it felt good to see the student’s smiling faces beyond a screen. Cottonwood also held another car parade for the remaining students.

“I think we were all doing our best,” Ethridge said. “I think it does them a lot of good too...I think they miss us just as much.”

Like all those around her, fifth grade teacher Brooke Gerkin certainly missed her students. Her eyes grew misty by the end and said she was thankful for it all worked out so well.

“I’m so happy it all came together,” Gerkin said. “The kids are excited. I saw a lot of big smiles.”

Gerkin said DC Signs gave them a generous discount on special signs with the students’ names and faces that the vehicle got to see as they made their way through the parade. They even made a giant photo plaque so students could still get a photo with their classmates.

Principal Lisa Vrvilo said the event was especially bittersweet since she’s retiring this year.

“It has been an amazing 13 years at Cottonwood,” Vrvilo said. “I will always have very fond memories of Cottonwood. It’s been a great place to be a principal.”

As she waved to passing vehicles, Vrvilo said, “I’ve watched these kids grow up. I’m glad they could celebrate today...That’s what it’s all about.”

Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at jacob.mann@frontiersman.com

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