Graduates to celebrate pride and perseverance

Grounds superintendent Josh Carter, left, and Rick Oehm, both with ASG Solutions, place signs that mark where The Villages High School seniors will sit during today’s ceremony at The H.G. Morse Range.

The Villages High School will celebrate a graduation like no other today. Students have been learning online — not on campus  — since they left for spring break in March. So the socially distant outdoor graduation ceremony will also be different but just as special for the Class of 2020. To watch it live, tune in at 9 a.m. to to see the livestream of the ceremony. So the school can adhere to social distancing guidelines, this year’s graduation is limited to only four predetermined guests per graduate instead of the 10 tickets per graduate that has been customary for the charter school, The Villages Charter School Education Director Randy McDaniel said. The general public is not allowed.

Principal Rob Grant said that 100% of this year’s class is graduating on time, if not early. The school is conferring diplomas on 226 students today, bringing the total number of graduates to 228.  

Two, Conner Higginbotham and Carli Bogart, graduated in January, Grant said. He said Higginbotham joined the Navy and is at basic training. Bogart will come back to campus to march with her classmates.

When students left for spring break, they expected to see their friends and classmates in a week.

The state first extended spring break an extra week, then students started learning online when school closures were extended to the end of April. Then closures were extended to the end of the school year, so students never got to say goodbye. 

“They had a tough year, especially the last couple of months,” Grant said. “We’re trying our best to celebrate our kids and give them some closure at the end of the school year.”

Students finished the year with online learning from home.

Spring sports seasons were abruptly cut short. 

The spring musical theater production and spring dance, choir and band concerts were canceled.

“We’re one of the few schools around that got to do prom,” Grant said.

VHS prom was March 7. Grad Bash and the senior walk through the halls the last day of school were among the end-of-year traditions the class missed.

Academic and scholarship awards were recognized online.

Yet students persevered with the help of teachers and parents, some of whom were furloughed as businesses and schools closed, and some who were considered essential workers, leaving some teens to help oversee younger siblings’ online learning.

Some students struggled with time management without the structure of the school day. They found support from parents, counselors, administrators and teachers.

Others enjoyed completing assignments at their own pace without having to wait for classmates.

Through dual enrollment classes, 44 earned their associate of arts degrees from Lake-Sumter State College. The college plans its graduation ceremony in late July.

“Our students have done well academically in these difficult times,” McDaniel said.

Students still completed advanced placement classes and took those tests.

They also earned industry certifications through the school’s 15 career academies.

All 228 of this year’s graduates have been in one of the school’s 15 career academies since the beginning of their junior year.

When they had to come on campus for some of those tests, they spread out across campus, often with only one student in a classroom, Grant said.

Auditions for performing arts groups such as band, choir and dance started, also socially distant, and are continuing for two weeks instead of two days, he said.

The soon-to-be graduates say they have missed their friends, and it’s nice to find any way to see each other even if they must keep their distance.

VHS senior Alayna Phillips won a scholarship from The Villages Dollars for Scholars, which presented the awards outdoors, spread apart at Lake Sumter Landing earlier in the week.

She said she is grateful for the scholarship that will help her major in hospitality management at the University of Central Florida. And, she said, the presentation was nice for another reason.

She hadn’t seen any classmates for months.

“I didn’t know my friend got one, too,” Phillips said. “It’s nice to see familiar faces. It’s like a little reunion before graduation.”  

Staff writer Dayna Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5408, or