WESLEY CHAPEL — When Wiregrass Ranch High School put on its spring performance of Guys and Dolls, actors in the show were astonished by the level of support they got from their schoolmates.
"I was amazed at how much the people around us accept us for what we do," said senior Christopher Baker, 18.
But then, he added, that's one of the best things about Wiregrass Ranch High. The school backs the arts, and the students accept the artists just as much as they do the athletes and the academics.
"It's nothing like Glee, where you're the nerds and people get slushied," said senior Angel Rivera, 17, an award-winning artist who helped design the musical's set.
In an age when many schools look to the arts as a place to cut costs, Wiregrass Ranch leaders see music, drama and the visual arts as a draw for students to create and thrive, sometimes remaining in classes when other subjects don't necessarily appeal. The Bulls class of 2012 is filled with teens who counted on the arts to make it through high school.
Many have translated their commitment into their future plans.
Baker and Joshua Goodridge, 18, who performed together in nearly every Wiregrass Ranch play in their four years, now both will pursue bachelor of fine arts degrees in acting at the University of Central Florida. Rivera is headed to the University of Tampa to study film and media arts. Musicians Jesse Hu and Nathan Tindall, both 18, plan to use the creativity of making music as they study their advanced academics.
"Some people dropped out of band because they were worried about their academics," said Hu, a classical saxophone player who wants to get a degree in biomedical or chemical engineering. "But band focuses us. It gives a creative perspective. … When you get out into the world, you're not just expecting perfection. You're expecting interpretation and all the other things you don't get out of academics."
Tindall, who plays clarinet and piano, said his music helped set him apart from other applicants as he won admission to Stanford University.
"What I have learned in band has been more impactful on me than anything else I have done here," he said. "There's more an education than just math and science. It's about being well rounded and going out into the world and doing what you want to do."
They all praised principal Ray Bonti for giving Wiregrass Ranch an arts focus.
"You can tell he has a passion for the arts and he can see that we have a passion for the arts, because he cares about the students," Goodridge said. "He's going to support the things we love."
That fire for the arts was evident as they reminisced on the many activities they have participated in during their time at the school.
Baker still remembered his first role in a Wiregrass production.
"I thought I was hot stuff. Little did I know I had the smallest part," he said. "From there, I got motivated. I really love how I can express myself when I am on stage. I can show the audience who I am."
Woodridge said he knew from the time he saw Will Smith on television that he wanted to act.
"We have home movies. I'm always being the little ham, the guy to make people laugh," he said. "If I can make someone smile, that makes me happy."
Having drama in school gave him the outlet to focus.
Rivera said he's made videos since he was little, and he always played the director's role. Or, as he put it, "I was always telling people what to do."
He was thrilled to find film production and digital design courses in high school. They helped him discover what he wanted his future to look like — and not look like.
"It helped me realize I didn't want to be a graphic designer. It wasn't my passion," he said. "I like to envision something and create it on the screen."
Looking forward, the teens realize there are risks in pursuing the arts as a career.
"Of course I'm worried that I won't be able to find a job," Rivera said. "I think if it's something I'm really dedicated to, opportunities will come my way."
"If I'm in a really big show and it's something I love, there's nothing else I want to do," added Baker. "I'm not moving back into my mom's house. I know it's not going to come to me on a silver tray. But I can make a silver tray."
There's always the double major backup, Goodridge said. His will be computer science engineering.
"At the end of the day, even if it just comes down to doing community theater every now and then, I'd be happy with that," he said. "But I'm going to try as hard as I can to get out there."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.