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Hernando schools prepare for large crowds, bad weather at ceremonies

A mother reacts to being turned away from the Hernando High gym during graduation last year. She and others lined a fence near a building where the graduates were before the ceremony.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times (2008)

A mother reacts to being turned away from the Hernando High gym during graduation last year. She and others lined a fence near a building where the graduates were before the ceremony.

BROOKSVILLE — This time last year, the joy of watching their children walk across the stage and grab a diploma was still ahead for families of Hernando High School's Class of 2008.

But on graduation day, things went wrong — and then got ugly.

School officials, thinking the size of the crowd in the gymnasium had hit the capacity allowed by the fire code, turned dozens of ticket-holding parents and family members away. Tears and shouting ensued, and some ticket-holders wound up watching the ceremony on television in the school's auditorium.

Within days, incoming principal Ken Pritz approved a plan to hold this year's ceremony at the school's football stadium to ensure there is plenty of room.

That plan is still a go, Pritz said. The ceremony is set for 7:30 p.m. today, with a rain date of 10 a.m. Tuesday. The gates open at 6 p.m.

Students were given as many tickets as they requested this year, and there will be ample seating for the roughly 2,800 ticket-holders, assistant principal Mary Krabel said.

The stadium seats about 1,800. The visitor bleachers that will be rolled onto the field hold another 700, and there will be 400 to 500 chairs set up on the field, Krabel said.

There also will be at least some standing room for those who show up without tickets, she said.

"I'm not locking the gates," Krabel said.

A shuttle service begins at 6 p.m. to ferry people from the lots on Bell and Howell avenues and lots near the Star Education Center and Brooksville Elementary School.

While space won't be an issue, there's another element to consider.

The unusually wet weather that has soaked the state in the past two weeks has school officials a little nervous.

"We're just praying the rain will hold off," Pritz said.

Students, parents and staffers at the district's other three high schools have been saying the same prayer for years — with positive results.

Springstead, Central and Nature Coast Technical high schools are all too large to enjoy the rain-or-shine luxury afforded by a gym or auditorium. Each school schedules evening graduation ceremonies in their respective stadiums, with the rain date the following morning.

Central has done so for about a decade and hasn't had to cash the next-day rain check, said principal Dennis McGeehan.

There have been a couple of close calls, though, McGeehan said.

One year, ominous dark clouds and crackling bolts of lightning prompted officials to cut out a good portion of the ceremony. The pomp got pared down to little more than the diploma disbursement.

"It was probably the shortest graduation in history," McGeehan recalled.

Officials will also push back a ceremony to make sure it happens on the scheduled night.

Springstead High has done that on occasion since it started outdoor ceremonies back in the mid 1980s, principal Susan Duval said. The school has never had to hold the ceremony the next day, Duval said.

Last year's graduation started a little late to let a storm move through, she said. The graduates line up indoors, and family and friends can hang out in the cafeteria and gym during rain delays.

In the age of real-time radar, school officials can spot a sufficient window of clear weather even if it means a shorter ceremony. But as anyone who has spent a few summer days in Florida can attest, violent thunderstorms can pop up in a frighteningly quick flash.

Not only will portions of the ceremony get cut, but graduates might have to walk faster across the stage, Duval said.

What if a dangerous storm is imminent?

"We will ask the kids to stand, certify their graduation, have them turn their tassels, and turn them loose," Duval said. "That is the absolute last resort."

Even that, however, may be preferable to putting it off until the next morning.

"A lot of kids have families who are flying in to watch them graduate," Duval said. "To upset the plans and try to start all over the next morning is difficult at best."

Joey Lobianco, a senior and the student government president at Nature Coast Technical, said he isn't worried about a washout.

"That does not happen on Nature Coast graduation day," Lobianco said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando schools prepare for large crowds, bad weather at ceremonies 05/31/09 [Last modified: Sunday, May 31, 2009 6:29pm]
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