NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco eSchool assistant principal Pam Willoughby drew a smattering of sighs from the school's faculty Tuesday evening as she announced she had a "special presentation" for them during their students' graduation ceremony.
The night was not supposed to be about them.
But the teachers' dismay quickly turned to delight as Willoughby introduced graduating senior Alanis Sophia Sanchez to the stage.
The 17-year-old fledgling songwriter and recording artist, who recently signed with the same studio that produces superstars Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts, grabbed her guitar and carefully pulled the strap over her bobbie-pinned graduation cap decorated with musical notes and a 45 single.
"Today, I wanted to give back to those who have selflessly given their time and effort and hard work, which you sometimes tend to not give enough credit for our successes," Alanis Sophia told classmates, their families and others gathered in the River Ridge High performing arts center.
Then she debuted her new country-pop song, "Goodbye High School," which she wrote as a thank-you to teachers and families who supported her and all teens through school and toward their next stage in life.
Getting to that next place would have been nearly impossible, Alanis Sophia said, without the option of virtual classes through eSchool, which opened a decade ago.
It allowed her to make lengthy songwriting trips to Nashville without missing her school work.
And both were critical for her future, said her dad, Carlos Alvarez.
"I'm excited more that she's graduating," he said, as he filmed the swirl of post-graduation activity around his daughter.
She entered eSchool in seventh grade, leaving behind John Long Middle School because going there interfered with a performance schedule that blossomed after she became a runner-up in a Spanish-language version of The Voice at age 11.
"I think it was the right choice," said Alanis Sophia, who lives in Dade City with her family.
She still had the opportunity to hang out with friends, go to football games and proms. And she didn't miss out on the courses she needed to ensure she completed high school, so she can pursue a degree in film and music production at Full Sail University (also online).
"It was easier for me to grab my laptop and go," she explained. "The teachers were always there … just a phone call away."
She wasn't the only one to take such advantage.
Willoughby pointed at several of the graduates in the hall as examples. The star swimmer and tennis prodigy, both headed to major universities on athletic scholarships. The actor who works daily in a Disney production. The performer who landed a regular gig in Orlando.
"It has been our great privilege to offer a school environment that helps our students pursue their dreams," principal JoAnne Glenn said.
Alanis Sophia strummed her guitar as the graduation settled in.
"Holding on to memories, we grow so fast," she sang. "We've got films without sound, they're gonna last."
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By the time she hit the part about parents watching their children grow and move on, tears were flowing. Even she admitted to losing it just a little bit as she sang the chorus: "What a feeling to be right here / Throw your caps in the air / From the first day to the last / It's goodbye high school, hello new life."
The crowd gave Alanis Sophia a standing ovation. (See her performance here)
Then she quietly took her seat, making way for Glenn to confer diplomas on the class.
Afterward, well wishers — many of whom Alanis Sophia had never met — approached with hugs and handshakes.
"That was amazing," one mom told her.
"Awesome," said another.
The teachers for whom she wrote the song effused, as well, using words like "stunning" and "highlight" to describe the event.
"She's just a good spirit," said consumer sciences teacher Jill Bopp, who never taught Alanis Sophia but has known her for years. "When she sings, that really seals the deal. It's like angels are coming down."
Alanis Sophia took it all in stride. She said she loves the attention to her and her work, and can't wait to take it to the next level.
Whether "Goodbye High School" will land on her first album, which she expects to come out next spring, remains to be seen. It depends partly on whether the label decides to go country-rock or country-pop.
She's partial to the rock side, being a fan of empowered female singers like Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and Kacey Musgraves. But Alanis Sophia said she'll do what it takes to tell her stories through song.
She said her mom, Katherine Sanchez, taught her how to perform and offered the message that decorated her graduation cap and motivates her.
"Dreams do come true," Alanis Sophia said. "If you work hard, you will succeed."
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @jeffsolochek.