TAMPA – When it comes to hosting graduations, the Hillsborough County school district has it down to a science.
Over the next week, 11,000-plus students in the nation’s eighth-largest district will graduate from more than two dozen schools in the same place, all on the just about the same schedule.
At 9:30 a.m. Thursday morning, 580 Newsome High students donned caps and gowns to receive their diplomas in the first of 27 graduations to be held at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall through June 6.
Throughout the day Thursday, three more ceremonies were held – at 1 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. – with nearly 2,000 students walking across the stage, turning their tassels and joining the ranks of high school graduates.
Expect more of the same today and every day next week – four graduations each day except for June 6, when there will be three. Parking is cash only and costs $5 per vehicle.
“This is a classic example where people used to do things very differently,” school district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said. “Now, it’s much more standardized.”
This is the fourth year for all county high-schoolers to graduate in the same location. Before, half of the ceremonies were held at the University of South Florida Sun Dome and the other half were held at the fairgrounds.
District officials revised their plans when the Sun Dome closed for renovations and ultimately decided to host all ceremonies indoors in the same place.
For neighboring Pasco and Pinellas counties, some of this year’s graduations will be held in the Sun Dome and others in school gymnasiums and football stadiums.
At each Hillsborough graduation, about 30 security officers from local law enforcement agencies, the school district and fairgrounds will be on hand to ensure that the crowds get in and out of the hall in a timely manner, making way for the next round of graduates and their guests so each ceremony runs seamlessly.
During Newsome’s ceremony Thursday, the graduates filed onto the floor to “Pomp and Circumstance.” Principal Carla Bruning gave a welcome address, followed by speeches by the school’s salutatorian, Alyson Kneusel, and valedictorian, Vanessa Metellus.
Metellus, who plans to attend the University of Florida and become a doctor, urged her classmates not to be scared and “pursue what you want in life.”
Then, the graduates stepped one by one onto the stage to receive diplomas as families and friends cheered and snapped photos with smartphones and cameras.
The second graduation of the day, in which 381 students from Chamberlain High received their diplomas, ran much the same, with Principal Celeste Liccio, salutatorian Sarika Patel and valedictorian Ellen Pham speaking. Pham, who will go on to study government and economics at Bowdoin College in Maine, spoke about how many people believe her generation is lazy. She challenged her classmates to prove them wrong.
“Let us take the responsibility for our lives and make them incredible,” she said.
Thursday afternoon, district officials said everything was running smoothly so far on the first day of graduations. Later in the day, students from Plant High and Brandon High graduated.
“We have to do it like clockwork,” Hegarty said. “You have to get it done in a certain period of time.”
Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who will attend every single graduation, said she has set up an office at the Expo Hall so she can work between ceremonies.
“It is the culmination of a lot of hard work for students, teachers, administrators and our parents,” she said. “It’s the highlight of our year.”
Some students said they appreciated how organized the whole process was.
“It makes it a lot easier,” 19-year-old Newsome graduate John Williams said.
Standardizing the process doesn’t make the day any less special for the graduates and their families.
“It’s like yesterday they were born and today we’re here,” Kedar Gay said from her spot in the audience for Newsome’s graduation. Her daughters Elizabeth and Megane Gay both graduated from Newsome.
Born 10 months apart soon after their family emigrated to the United States from Haiti, the sisters were raised in a household where schoolwork comes first.
Elizabeth graduated with a 5.02 grade point average and Megane with a 4.8. Elizabeth will attend the University of South Florida in the fall with plans of becoming a doctor. Her sister plans to attend Hillsborough Community College and then USF and to pursue a career as an orthodontist.
“My cheeks hurt from smiling,” Elizabeth Gay said. “I feel ecstatic.”