TAMPA — Christian Williams stood outside the USF Sun Dome showing friends a penny painted red and adorned with his initials.
"We decorated pennies because we're the first class," the Wiregrass Ranch High School graduating senior explained. "It's our gift to the principal."
As in almost every other way, the Class of 2009 sought to set the pace for the school that they opened three years ago. They wrote the alma mater, established the clubs and activities, created the traditions.
"The most impressive thing I think about this class is they have made an identity for this school," reading teacher Deanna Porter said, as she watched the seniors make final preparations Sunday for their commencement. "They were the leaders."
And on Sunday, they became the first and only people to hold a diploma from Wiregrass Ranch High.
"We're going to go down in the history books forever," said Christian, the student council vice president, who heads to Florida State University in the fall with enough Advanced Placement credits to begin as a sophomore. "This is something they can never take away from us."
Making their mark
The graduates recalled coming to Wiregrass Ranch when it was still a bunch of wooden portables out behind Weightman Middle School. They had predawn sports practices, lunch in the late afternoon and rain-soaked 5 p.m. dismissals.
Clarissa Stokes recalled helping move boxes from the portables to the new school over winter break that first year. That, too, gave these students a sense of ownership that marked the next few years.
"We decided what our experience would be, and it turned out great," said Clarissa, who plans to study at the University of South Florida.
The vast majority of students took advantage of the opportunity.
Of the 320 original members of the Class of 2009, 302 qualified for Sunday's graduation (299 attended). Another 13 are expected to complete their requirements before summer ends.
The class received 115 Bright Futures scholarships. Beyond that, students earned another $1 million in scholarships.
"Wiregrass was perfect, because it became our blank canvas," said senior class president Elyse Houston, who's headed to the University of Miami on a full four-year scholarship. And with it, she said, the senior class established greatness that serves as an example not just for future Wiregrass Ranch seniors, but for the whole county.
"We truly have built our school from the ground up, and today we leave our final mark," added valedictorian Monica Abdelmalak.
In his remarks, principal Ray Bonti told the class to make the best of the future, just as they made good on the chances given to them at Wiregrass Ranch.
"Make your beginning bold," he said. "Make your promises come true. … Today is your day, a new beginning."
After all the speeches came the introduction of the graduating class, most of whom handed Bonti a penny before sitting back down. Less than 90 minutes after they entered the auditorium, it was over.
All they had to do was get diplomas to put into the covers they received on stage.
Being close to the end of the alphabet, Christian Williams made it to the line first.
"Now that's what I'm talking about," he said, shaking hands with a buddy who was close behind. They headed to the exit talking about what comes next. First, they needed to find family members.
Then, Christian said, "I'm going to do great things."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.