Back to Press Releases

June 3, 2019

Spotlight: Carolina High School Cap & Gown

“Whatever It Takes.”

That is the motto at Carolina High School, where the poverty index is the lowest of any high school in its county and among the highest across the state of South Carolina.

As you might imagine in a population where teenagers require full-time jobs to help their families make ends meet or where students are unsure of where they will sleep at night, graduation isn’t a given for Carolina High seniors. In fact, over the last nine years, Principal Michael Delaney has worked diligently to raise the graduation rate from where it stood in 2010, at a staggeringly low 48.8 percent.

A tradition that drives student achievement – and one of many that the school administration and staff commit to every year in order to see as many students walk across the stage as possible – is to provide the seniors with a custom graduation cap and gown, unique to their graduating class.

“Our caps and gowns represent the uniqueness and differences of the personalities of each individual graduate and graduating class. It is a way to celebrate the students for being who they are,” Delaney said. “It has also become quite an incentive for our students to graduate so that they can get theirs.”

Herff Jones began creating the custom design for Carolina High School in 2016 when local Sales Partner Andy Waters took notice of the school’s efforts to increase graduation rates.

Inspired by the positive impact Delaney and his staff were having on the students, Waters immediately knew Carolina High was the best choice when Herff Jones came to him looking for a school to test out a new, fully-sublimated custom gown option.

The first year’s product was a blue and white gown covered in a “scatter pattern” of orange motivational words like passion, purpose, responsibility, trust, and, of course, “whatever it takes.”

“The school fell in love with the design and wanted to keep doing it,” Waters said. “They use it as a tool to drive student achievement.”


In previous years, the gown design was conceptualized with input from Principal Delaney and his staff. However, this year, the fourth year of the custom gown program at Carolina High, Waters suggested a senior design committee spearhead the look of the gown.

So, in early November, Herff Jones’ Creative Director Steve Nealy traveled to South Carolina to meet with the 12 students on the gown design committee. During that first session, the group got right to work, whiteboarding ideas for the 2019 graduation gown. In addition to incorporating the school colors and logo in interesting ways, they wanted each gown to be personalized with the student’s last name, feature two different patterns and display Carolina in vertical typography down the back of the gown.


Nealy brought their ideas and sketches back to Lee Cherolis, a graphic designer on Herff Jones’ marketing team, who would turn the group’s whiteboard brainstorm into reality.

“We have the ability to do some really cool work with these gowns that speak to these students specifically,” Cherolis said. “On our part, it’s a balance of staying true to the students’ design thoughts, but also keeping in mind design and production capabilities.”

For instance, the “swirly, oil drip pattern” the students brought to the table for the trim of the gown needed to be reworked into a repeatable pattern. Cherolis was able to bring their design idea to life by digitally constructing a similar, scalable pattern, which also incorporated the school’s official colors.

After a few rounds of revisions with the students to perfect the look, the committee approved the final gown design just before the holiday break.


Then, it was shipped off to our Herff Jones artisans at the cap and gown plant in Arcola, Ill.

“This is the only gown we manufacture like this,” said Ken Wenzel, plant manager. “With the design being different every year, it creates new challenges. We get to figure out how to make it happen, and we always do.”


For a typical design, Wenzel said the plant can manufacture over 4,000 gowns a day, but for this particular design, they were only able to complete 20-30 per day.

Wenzel said this year’s biggest challenges were the two different sublimated patterns along with the lettering down the back of the gown.

Sublimation is a production process which involves printing an image onto fabric and repeating that image in a pattern across a portion of the gown. This allows the design to be truly custom, as each gown varies slightly depending on where the fabric is cut.

“No two gowns are identical,” Wenzel said. “The school isn’t just getting a unique gown; every student is getting a unique gown.”

As for the vertical lettering on the back, this was a first for Herff Jones.

“We don’t usually have a design on the back,” Wenzel said. “We had to think through how big the letters needed to be, how to space them properly and even how we would fold them to ship them out.”

Employees from all areas of operations came together to brainstorm the best way to design each part of the gown while still guaranteeing accuracy. Therefore, the entire plant takes pride in the final product, and furthermore, the impact to the school and the students.

Wenzel celebrates the team’s hard work by hanging an extra gown on the production floor, along with photos of the graduates as they cross the stage wearing their custom product, as a reminder of the value of their work.


The student committee was not only tasked with designing the gown their fellow classmates would wear on graduation day, but they also had to keep it under wraps for months.

As in years past, the school hosts a special gown reveal for the graduating seniors, where they see the gown for the first time.


To make it that much more special, the parents and guardians are the ones who deliver the gowns to their graduating student. For most, this is a very emotional day, Waters said.

When they walk into the classroom, they hand the gown to the senior while telling them, “You are eligible for graduation.”

“It is amazing how, when asked how it felt to get their cap and gown, all of our students said it felt like they accomplished something,” said Delaney. “The students and their parents were so proud.”

“This is why we do what we do, because it matters.”

Read more about how promoting the cap and gown can lead to school spirit here.