Project Graduation Yearbook Page

The Aspen High School 1989 yearbook featured a page dedicated to Project Graduation, the all-night lock-in for graduating seniors. The event continues, 30 years later.

A beloved local tradition will return Saturday when Aspen High School’s 129 graduating seniors, having received their diplomas earlier in the day, will convene at the Aspen Recreation Center for the all-night celebration known as Project Graduation.

A lock-in, drug- and alcohol-free party that will mark its 30th year in Aspen, Project Graduation has become a much-anticipated rite of passage for the school’s young adults (and the parents concerned about their safety).

“This is really a magical evening that is transformative for our graduates,” said Kimberly Schlosser, the parent of an AHS senior and head of the Project Graduation steering committee. “It’s a celebration that encourages inclusiveness and togetherness versus divisiveness, and I just think that in today’s world that’s so important.”

The event may be all about the seniors, but as Schlosser noted, “it takes a village,” and that village shows up in force to make Project Graduation happen each June. Schlosser has been preparing for most of the school year with some 50 volunteers on the event’s 12 committees, and the night of the party, which runs from 8:30 p.m. Saturday to 3:30 a.m. Sunday, another 125 parent volunteers will work in shifts to transform the ARC into a fun-filled wonderland, chaperone the kids and clean up afterward.

But Project Graduation’s buy-in doesn’t end with the students and parents. The party is free to attend but costs roughly $150 to $200 per student to throw — money that comes from “parent donors as well as very generous businesses and organizations we receive grants from.”

Altogether, it makes for an over-the-top bash that attracts nearly 100 percent of graduating students each year for a simple reason that has nothing to do with safety or sobriety. The plain fact is that Project Graduation is so replete with great food, non-alcoholic drinks, music and cool prizes and events that no student-organized house party can compare.

It’s the key to the event’s success, and it was an essential part of the plan when Project Graduation was launched in 1989.

“We agreed that we were going to have a party that was in a better facility than the kids’ parties in the past used to be; I think they used to have it under a bridge, to be honest,” said Tom Farrell, superintendent of the Aspen School District from 1988 to 2003. “We’d get a lot of food, so they’d have better food. We’d have good music and a lot of things to do. So then the choice would be: If you’re not going to the school-sponsored, all-night, drug-free party, why would you want to go to a party that’s got lousy music and not much food?”

It seems like a no-brainer of a decision, but at the time, the parties involved feared Project Graduation might be a tough sell, regardless of how much the AHS students were looking to change things up. Farrell, who came to Aspen from Maine, was still a relative unknown in town, and old, ingrained patterns were prevalent in the student body.

“I met with the senior class officers in the summertime, shortly after the class before them graduated, and I asked them what issues they wanted me to address,” said Farrell. “It came up during the conversation that they were concerned about the amount of alcohol and drug use that was going on, especially during the graduation period.”

As luck would have it, Farrell had helped institute Project Graduation a few years earlier at a school in Maine, and he explained the idea to the AHS senior class officers and asked if they’d be interested in doing something similar.

“That turned into a very long conversation because they were very nervous that nobody would go,” said Farrell. “It was such a significant change from the norm that they didn’t think it would work.”

The kids admitted that they weren’t sure what would happen at a party if people weren’t drinking — “In short they thought it’d be a boring party” — and they were still reluctant when Farrell made a deal with them.

“I said, ‘If I fly you to the state of Maine, and we go around and meet with kids who’ve been through Project Graduation, they can tell you what they did and if it was fun or not, and you can make your decision after you meet with them,’” said Farrell. “‘But you have to promise me you’ll have an open mind and really try hard to support it.’”

Farrell and the kids flew to Maine and went to two or three schools, where the students talked to their contemporaries without Farrell being present. Though they came away impressed, the kids were still worried no one would come to Aspen’s Project Graduation, so Farrell made another deal with them.

“I told them, ‘We’re not going to judge the success of the party based on how many come,’” he said. “‘We’ll judge the success of the party by how much fun the people who are there have.’”

The students agreed, and after that “it took off like wildfire; I’ve never seen so much support from a community so quickly.” Dick Butera, then-owner of the Aspen Club, donated the facility free of charge, local stores donated prizes, including round-trip airline tickets and two mountain bikes, and Farrell estimated that “very close to 100 percent of the kids showed up.”

The event kept getting better and better each year, and before long most AHS students stopped contemplating going to another party instead. As a result, over the past 30 years more than 3,000 students have been kept safe on graduation night — traditionally a very dangerous time for teenagers — while experiencing one of the true highlights of their high school careers.

So, with essentially all of the seniors buying in and the event trying to outdo itself every year, what can students expect to see when they arrive at the ARC on Saturday evening?

“That’s top secret,” said Schlossser. “I can’t reveal that information because we make it a big surprise every year for the students. They have no idea what to expect, and that is one of the most fun parts of the evening.”

That may be one of the most fun parts of the evening for the graduating seniors, but the joy it brings them is probably trivial compared to the happiness their parents will feel when their kids make it home safe and sound Sunday morning.

Todd Hartley writes for the Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at todd@aspendailynews.com.