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School's out with joy, tears

Some are looking forward to graduation, others to a lazy summer spent at the beach or a neighborhood pool. For a few, summer school is on the horizon. But for all 93,506 public students in Pinellas County, Wednesday marked the end of another school year.

On campuses all around the county, students and teachers were celebrating at classroom parties. Friends were exchanging phone numbers and summer addresses. And at the last moment, there were goodbye hugs for favorite teachers.

At Skycrest Elementary School in Clearwater, kindergarten teacher Carolyn Lofton quieted a noisy classroom.

"If you can hear me, put on your quiet hat," Ms. Lofton called out to the children, who complied by ceasing their chatter and folding their hands, tentlike, above their heads.

The children showered Ms. Lofton with hugs, kisses and gifts.

"Where else can I go where I have 24 fans who love me to death?" she asked.

One such place Wednesday was Shirley Garrett's kindergarten class at Bardmoor Elementary in Seminole.

After a final game of Farmer In The Dell, Mrs. Garrett hugged her pupils and stamped their tiny hands with an ink drawing of a dinosaur.

"We've had a wonderful year," she said. "You've grown so much. You're now almost as tall as Mrs. Garrett."

At area middle schools, eighth-graders fought back tears as they bid farewell to friends who would be attending other high schools next fall. Oak Grove Middle School in Clearwater calls its final bash for eighth-graders a "Tear Fest."

"It's a good way for them to get all of the emotion out," said principal Pegoty Lopez.

"It's totally sad," said Oak Grove Middle School pupil Jill Maliszewski, 13. "A lot of my friends are going to Pinellas Park. I'm going to Clearwater."

Jill and four of her friends, all cheerleaders, were lingering after the last bell on the front steps. They were debating whether they would try out for cheerleader next year at their respective high schools.

"It's not the same in high school," said Missy George, 13. "In high school, cheerleaders are sort of stereotyped as, well, ditsy. We don't want to be ditsy."

At Tarpon Springs Middle School, emotions were running high during the last lunch of the school year. At one point, administrators regrouped the eighth-graders to avoid a fight.

Next year, eighth-graders who live on the west side of town will head for Tarpon Springs High School. Those on the east will go to East Lake High School.

Craig Wilson, 14, will be separated from his girlfriend, Anthea Drew, 13.

"It's not fair," Craig said. "We go to school for three years and then we're separated."

"It's a part of life," said Leslie Kirk, 13. "But I wish, like, East Lake never happened."

Students weren't the only ones celebrating Wednesday. The county's 6,464 full-time teachers were doing some rejoicing of their own.

At Dunedin High School, Pinellas County's Teacher Of The Year reflected on the year that has now gone by.

"As a teacher, you never really know which students you (reach)," said Van Thomas Black, who teaches geometry at Dunedin High. "Some you never knew you impressed will come by and say "By the way, this was nice.'


Seniors at Dunedin High were looking forward to graduation and life beyond.

"I'm outta' this school," shouted Alyma Dorsey, 17, after completing the last final of her high school career. "It feels great. It feels awesome. There's no word to explain it."

Ms. Dorsey, who is headed to Florida State in the fall, was already saying goodbye to some of her friends.

"It'll hit me later," she said.

Michelle Mack, 18, was another excited Dunedin High graduate-to-be.

"I can't even believe this," Ms. Mack said. "It seems like I've been in school since I've been talking."

"Free at last, free at last," added senior Carlos Mobley, 19.

Black said he is always sad to see the graduates leave. But even harder, "are the ones that aren't leaving, the ones that aren't successful," Black said. "We get a list every day of those withdrawing. Even the last five days, some decide they're not going to make it. That really hurts."