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Grads celebrate end and beginning

After 13 grueling years counting kindergarten _ of homework, hall passes, gym classes and report cards, high school seniors around the county are ready for their final farewell. Pinellas County's 15 public high schools will have graduation ceremonies today. Some of the schools also are sending off their seniors with awards ceremonies and parties _ lots of parties. And some of the graduates have plans of their own.

A few of the schools scheduled all-night graduation bashes for Wednesday or today, with an emphasis on fun without drugs and alcohol. Other parties, organized by students, are by invitation only, and will include relatives and teachers as well as friends.

And then there are the parties where there will be no parents or teachers in sight. And for those who want it, the beer probably will flow. Administrators know this, and they have spent the better part of the year educating students about the dangers of drinking and driving.

For many, the send-offs began up to a month ago, with entire weeks devoted to the seniors and special breakfasts, picnics, awards assemblies and talent shows. And of course, all the schools sponsored proms, and most had "grad nights," where faculty chaperones accompanied the students on nighttime trips to Disney World, when the park was closed to everyone except high school seniors.

Here are some highlights of several schools' festivities:

St. Petersburg High

Every year, the school has a "move-up" assembly, activities director Herb Anderson said. Each of the four classes sits in a specific area of the auditorium.

"The senior class moves onto the stage to take its place in society, and all the classes move to take the previous one's place," Anderson said.

Pinellas Park High

Most of the parties here will be unofficial, given by individuals, said senior sponsor Jean Cambron. "Some of the students will be caravaning from one party to the next," she said.

Both the school's Students Against Driving Drunk chapter and area Mothers Against Drunk Driving have sought to discourage the students from drinking and driving, Ms. Cambron said.

During finals week, the cafeteria was decorated in honor of the seniors, and they also were treated to an outdoor party during school _ "a last fling of childhood," Ms. Cambron said.

Northeast High

About 400 students attended a catered breakfast last week at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus, said activities director Howard Godfrey.

Lakewood High

The school's seniors were treated to an all-day outing, which included breakfast, lunch and a private showing of Dances with Wolves, said activities director Elizabeth Collins.

As for parties, senior Kyle Martin said "Everybody does their own thing." Some students rent hotel rooms, he said, and parents normally are not in attendance.

Dixie Hollins High

During the school's Senior Week, the highlight was a "Senior Takeover Day," said senior sponsor Charlotte Higgins.

Students could apply to take over classes or duties for teachers or administrators. "They did a good job," Higgins said. "They got to see what some of the problems are on the other side."

Boca Ciega High

A "Senior Celebration Week" featured yearbook signings, a slide show recapping the year and a job fair, said principal Barbara Paonessa.

On one of the days, seniors were allowed to wear their caps and gowns to school, Paonessa said.

Gibbs High

Sadness shadows graduation ceremonies at Gibbs High School. On Wednesday, many seniors attended the funeral of their principal, John Demps, who died of a heart attack Friday.

"Our kids are very resilient," said Anthony Thurston, an assistant principal. "They were focusing on their exams because they had the idea that's how Mr. Demps would want it."