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Full-fledged Eagles take flight

It was a freshman's paradise. When East Lake High School opened four years ago, there weren't any know-it-all seniors wandering the hallways.

"The freshmen didn't get picked on," Jody Ames, 17, recalled. "No one knew where everything was."

But over the years Ames and the rest of the Class of '91 learned their way around the big, new school and left their mark on its future.

Their graduation today is a milestone in the short history of East Lake High. Theirs is the first class of seniors who have spent all four years as East Lake Eagles.

Most of the 320 or so seniors graduating today have attended East Lake High since it opened in 1987, principal Bruce Baptist said.

"They're our largest graduating class so far," he said Wednesday. "And this class has been our most together class that we've ever had."

East Lake High was built for the affluent community of new subdivisions that during the past decade have sprawled across land east of Lake Tarpon. That land once was pasture and swamp.

At first, East Lake High was a schizophrenic school, its student body split in two. Students were partisans of whichever school their siblings had attended, either Countryside High or Tarpon Springs High.

"There was not a lot of school spirit" the first year, said senior Brooke Houllis, 18. That was because school had no sense of tradition, she said.

"There was no homecoming, because we had no one to come home," Ames recalled.

It wasn't until 1989, when East Lake High got its own football stadium, that the students started thinking of themselves as Eagles, say parents and students.

This year the school was crowded with students, and the display cases at the entrance to the school have been crowded with trophies and plaques, some won by the marching band, some for athletics.

Last year the soccer team won the countywide championship, and the yearbook and student newspaper have won awards, too.

"We've got our own name and our own reputation," Ames said. "We grew together and became one school."

The students at other schools, particularly arch-rival Tarpon Springs High, still look down their noses at "that new school" out in the well-to-do suburbs, say East Lake students.

"They think it's a real snobby school, which is probably true," Houllis said.

"But they know now that we have our own traditions," said Kerry Hawkins, 19, another of the founding-class seniors.

And the students who have spent four years getting to know their school and themselves have become good friends, Ames said.

"The student body has gelled," Baptist said. The seniors "really care about each other."

"They are, in fact, a true class, a whole group of kids together," Baptist said. "That's unique in our society today."