By Noelle H. Lowery
Across the United States this spring, more than 3.3 million high school seniors are donning caps and gowns to do the graduation walk, but few of these soon-to-be graduates will be as proud as the 20 students who make up the first graduating class of the Marco Island Academy. Their graduation ceremony is today — Friday, May 30 — at 6 PM in the Capri Ballroom at the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort.
This first graduation ceremony is the culmination of five years of blood, sweat and tears, trials and errors, and ups and downs that go into creating and building a public charter school from scratch. Many in the graduating class have been part of MIA since it started. They watched the campus rise from the ground. They helped create a school crest. They designed the first class ring. They witnessed the gradual birth of what soon will be their alma mater.
It also ushers in the next stage of evolution for the local charter high school. This school year, MIA received it accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accreditation division of AdvancED in the Southern U.S. George Andreozzi stepped down as principal, and in his place is a new administration team headed by Principal Melissa Scott and Assistant Principal Amber Prange. The board hired Tina Nash as director of development to spearhead the school’s next phase of fundraising and growth. MIA also is awaiting the arrival of its new head football coach, Greg Fowler.
With these class of 2014 from the beginning have been MIA founder Jane Watt and Prange. The two women have watched this group of students expand their minds and become the leaders of the MIA family. “All of these students left somewhere — homeschool or another school — to take a chance at our new school and help build it,” Prange says. “Through everything, they have hung in there and are here now to graduate. We are just so proud, and it showcases the fact that we are here and they did it. Every single one them has a plan to pursue something they love in the future, and that is the best we can ask for.”
The magnitude of their graduation — and place in MIA history — is not lost on the students. When asked how they felt about being “the first,” the answers ranged from “honored,” “excited,” “privileged,” “rewarding” and “special” to thoughts about their “amazing journey,” the rewards of being “the start of a new future” and “setting the standard.” One even said coming to MIA “changed her life.”
Senior Jacob Hurtley summed it up best: “To be a pioneer is to be human. This was an interesting and life-changing experience that will impact my future.”
To be sure, the class of 2014 all will miss their friends, teachers and the uniquely tight-nit learning environment at MIA. The students and faculty and staff have fostered close, personal relationships, and it is these relationships that will fuel their future successes.
“The big thing we have been pushing is having the kids get in touch with what they are passionate about,” explains Prange. “Take risks, and don’t be afraid to be brave and courageous in your future.”
Scott, who is a seasoned veteran with 14 years of graduating classes under her belt, believes graduation is a holistic process that “always has to be about the students.” While this first graduation will teach the administration a great deal in preparation for next year’s crop of seniors, those students will be different with different needs, fears and futures.
“What works for one year will not work for the next,” she says. “Every kid is an individual and every class is individualistic. Graduation has to be meaningful to each class, and we as administrators have to take our own risks as well. We need to do the same thing we are encouraging our kids to do…take the same action as we ask of them.”