TAMPA — They met in fifth grade at an old brick schoolhouse in a neighborhood where just 45 percent of kids graduate from high school. They leaned on each other through four years at Academy Prep, where classes run up to 11 hours a day, six days a week, for 11 months a year.
Together, they were accepted at Tampa Prep. And nearly four years later, on Sunday, the best friends graduated.
Alterria Pyles and Jomarie Adorno, both 18, hugged each other and posed for pictures.
Their ambition had led them on a rigorous path, and now the pair had graduated from one of Tampa's most prestigious, and affluent, schools.
As freshmen at Tampa Prep, they had stuck close together.
One of the biggest transitions coming into Tampa Prep, Jomarie said, was boys in the classroom. For four years they had studied in a class of 15 girls at Academy Prep, where girls and boys are segregated and admittance is based on family incomes falling near the poverty line.
It could be easy to get overwhelmed.
Jomarie remembers hearing a student say, "Oh, yeah, I'm going on vacation to Paris for the week."
Her own family takes trips to the beach. Neither girl has been out of the country.
"Being close with Alterria definitely grounded me," said Jomarie. "She's one of the most accepting people I've ever known."
Alterria was nervous, too.
"I expected things to be awkward at first just because of how I live and how others live, or at least how I perceive they live — drastically different," Alterria said.
She remembers hearing a group of kids who regularly talked about stocks and bonds, not a topic that held her interest. She wore clothes from thrift shops. She later found out that some of the other kids at Tampa Prep did, too. By the time she got her 1988 Nissan Altima, she no longer felt intimidated as she parked it between BMWs.
Both found other friends. Alterria became the kind of person who listens to problems and gives solid advice.
"I've always been the type of person who is intrigued by the way people think," she said. "I've learned that real friends wouldn't care about material things anyway."
The girls and three other Academy Prep students were given a full ride to Tampa Prep, valued at nearly $100,000 over four years, said Dennis Facciolo, director of admissions.
"I would take every one of the Academy Prep kids I could get my hands on," he said. "They're indefatigable."
With 625 students, the urban private school aims to be diverse and includes 30 percent minorities, divided almost evenly between Asian, Hispanic and African-American students.
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Jomarie came to Tampa from Puerto Rico as a toddler and grew up with her mother in Wellswood. Alterria splits her time between her parents' homes in West Tampa.
Both went to Academy Prep because their parents wanted them to be challenged. The school opened in 2003 and will see its first students graduate from college next year, said head of school Lincoln Tamayo.
In seventh grade, Jomarie left the school for a few weeks. She was rebelling against the rules — like shoes had to be all black without the smallest hint of color. She came back, she said, when she realized how committed the teachers were to her success.
Alterria's cousin had gone to Academy Prep, and her parents wanted the same advantage for her.
They encouraged her to save money and instilled perseverance. They told her that being around others with more than she has shouldn't change her. She learned to travel through books and television shows.
"I never went to my parents and begged them for an iPhone or a better car," Alterria said. "That will come. Everyone tells me to work hard and everything will fall into place."
She has been accepted at the University of Miami and will study psychology. Jomarie got in the University of Central Florida and will study concert production. They plan to get together as often as possible.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.