WESLEY CHAPEL — Rogelio Carrillo started the school year knowing he had a lot of ground to cover if he hoped to graduate this spring.
"I was about six credits behind," said Rogelio, 18. "I was basically one of those kids who thought, 'I can make it up next year.' "
Next year came around quickly.
With encouragement from his teachers, Rogelio entered Wesley Chapel High's credit recovery program. And after months of focused attention, he completed 4 1/2 of his credits while also passing his regular courses. His plans for spring break: To finish another credit.
"I realized if I don't graduate, I'm not going to do anything with my life," said Rogelio, a senior who hopes to become a video game producer. "I don't want to live without accomplishing anything."
On Friday, Wesley Chapel High leaders celebrated the successes of Rogelio and about 70 other students who had made up a combined total of 118 credits during the first three quarters of the school year. Officials said that's more than any of Pasco County's other high schools, all of which have the same program.
"You guys should feel very good about yourselves," principal Carin Nettles told the students during an award ceremony in the school's performing arts center.
She quoted Michael Jordan — "I've failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed" — and told the teens that they have the same grit and determination.
"Today is a celebration," Nettles said, "a celebration of your perseverance."
The kids whooped and hollered in support of one another as they were introduced, walked across the stage and received certificates and T-shirts.
"You go, girl!" they shouted. "You did it!"
They even gave their teachers gifts, thanking them for their support and hard work in helping them make it through.
Dropping out should not be an option, said senior Vanessa Apolon, 18, who had to make up credits for English and algebra.
"So close to the end, why bother dropping out when you can just keep on going?" said Vanessa, who plans to become a physical therapist.
She has known students who have quit school rather than finishing. They were lazy, she said.
"I think I did get lazy at the beginning of the school year," Vanessa admitted. "When I realized there was a chance I might not graduate, I kicked it. I got motivated."
Far from being the free and fun time that seniors look forward to, senior year became the hardest year for Vanessa. And she wasn't alone.
Diane DeMarsh, also 18, fell only one-half credit behind. But she needed that half credit to graduate just as much as Rogelio needed his six.
Financial literacy was standing between her and her desire to become a nurse.
"It was one of the toughest credits I had to make up," Diane said, noting that the course was far from simple. "It took 4 1/2 months."
But with the guidance of teacher Pam McLaughlin, she got through the math and story problems and all the work to get back on the path to graduation. She'd encourage anyone who finds himself in a similar position to get into the program.
"Don't let anyone tell you you can't do it, because you can," she said.
During a conversation after the ceremony , district graduation enhancement supervisor Ramon Suarez urged Diane and others to be role models. He praised them for their hard work, often in the face of hurdles that can be difficult to overcome.
"When you see somebody down, grab them and say, 'Get up!' " Suarez said. "You guys are the top."
During the recognition, the school showed slides of each student in a cap and gown. Counselor Kelly Davey took those pictures at the start of the year, to make sure the students knew exactly what their goal should be.
Now, she said, that goal is becoming real. And that's well worth recognizing, she said.
"These students have had some adversities," Davey said. "They've stepped up to the plate. . . . We just felt like it was important to celebrate."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.