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  1. Education

Grudgingly, St. Petersburg High moves to an early-morning graduation at the Trop

ST. PETERSBURG — Declan Abernethy first visited St. Petersburg High School's Stewart Field at age 2. His father, then an English teacher, often carried him to home football games.

"I grew up there," he said.

Abernethy — now a 17-year-old senior — was outraged by the school's recent decision to move graduation to Tropicana Field, breaking an 88-year tradition on Stewart Field's hallowed ground. So he started a petition Tuesday and began gathering signatures.

"Everyone graduates at the Trop," he said. "What we have is unique. It's worth fighting for."

Despite some students' dismay, St. Petersburg High will join nine other Tampa Bay area schools hosting graduations indoors in June at Tropicana Field, where the temperature stays at about 70 degrees — and the rain, lightning and humidity stay outside.

The baseball stadium also will host Boca Ciega, Dixie Hollins, Gibbs, Lakewood, Largo, Northeast, Osceola, Pinellas Park and Seminole high schools.

About 500 St. Petersburg High seniors will graduate, principal Al Bennett said. And thanks to Tropicana's tight schedule, the school's June 3 ceremony will begin at 7:30 a.m.

"They drew names and we got the early slot," Bennett said. "But the chance to have a safe, consistent graduation convinced me to move it there."

Because students will need to arrive early to get in place for the procession, that translates to a predawn wake-up call on graduation day for students and their guests.

"7:30 a.m.? Count me out," said Mark Maggs, whose daughter Alexandra is a senior. "That's just awful. People work. I remember turning college classes down because they were that early."

Last year, Bennett said, the school had to reschedule the ceremony — then barely finished before more rain fell. In 2011, a heavy storm dumped on the crowd just as administrators started calling students' names. Two years ago, he said, paramedics treated people sick from the heat.

"This was a tough decision made over several years of bad weather," Bennett said. "Our primary concern is public safety."

And considering set-up and tear-down expenses, a Trop graduation won't cost seniors much more in fees than the previous football field ceremonies, he said.

Still, to some seniors, the romance of tradition is more alluring than dome-shaped practicality.

"It's a big deal to keep it here," said Ben Connelly, 17. "If we get rid of the tradition, it loses meaning. It'd just be ridiculous at this point."

Gabi Garcia, 17, said she didn't like it that the class of 2014 will be the first to break with tradition. "But there are some aspects of Tropicana that I like," she said. "We can bring more people than before, and we won't have to worry about being rained out. However, I don't like the early time since it's difficult for my relatives to make it."

By Thursday, the "Graduation to be on Stewart Field" petition had garnered 50 signatures. Senior class president Noor Tasnim, 17, signed because the football field is where he had wrestling practice, where he got in shape.

"It's symbolic to me," he said. "I transitioned into a better life there."

But a location change won't ruin his graduation, Tasnim said.

"I'd look at it as ending one tradition and starting another."

Tb-two* staff writer Irina Trenkova contributed to this report.

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