ST. PETERSBURG — Nothing ruins a graduation picture like torrential rain, blinding sun or grandparents suffering heat stroke.
Yet the decision to forsake 88 years of tradition for graduating seniors still wasn’t an easy one for St. Petersburg High School, which this year traded its outdoor commencement ceremony at Stewart Field for a 7:30 a.m. slot on the artificial turf inside the air conditioned dome of Tropicana Field on June 3.
“It’s sad. Eight years ago when I took this job, if someone had suggested we move graduation to Tropicana Field I would have said, ‘No way as long as I’m here,’ ” said school Principal Al Bennett, an alumnus. “But then going through all the issues we’ve had you have to think through whether we’re doing the right thing for our students’ safety when you’re flipping a coin every year.”
A majority of the 16 Pinellas County public high schools, which graduate about 6,500 students beginning today, will follow St. Petersburg’s lead after rain forced four schools to ditch their traditional outdoor venues and flock indoors or reschedule ceremonies last year.
As his student body has grown during the past few years, Bennett also has had to limit attendees at the football field to 10 tickets per student, which was incentive enough to change to the Trop’s unlimited seating, he said. Last year’s ceremony had to be rescheduled because of rain, which showed up anyway on the day of the ceremony. The year before, ambulances had to be called for elderly people who became ill in the heat, and in 2011 rain began as soon as the first several students walked across the stage.
Going through last-minute changes with a graduating class of about 500 this year, the second highest behind Palm Harbor University High’s 535, was too much to bear even for Bennett, who graduated on the field in 1980, he said. Now that the school year extends to June, and graduations land in the first week of hurricane season, the weather is just too big of a gamble.
“We went through an awful streak with our weather, but for the past few years I’ve let the students decide what they wanted to do and each time they always felt strongly about keeping it on the field,” Bennett said. “When we got dumped on again last year — and it was a real mess — I decided ultimately I have to be responsible for my students’ safety. I couldn’t go through another year of watching the weather station, hoping lightning wouldn’t hit my students.”
Of Pinellas’ 16 traditional high schools, Tarpon Springs’ class of about 300 is the lone holdout to once again hold its commencement ceremony on the school football field. Clearwater High also will stay outdoors, with a ceremony at Bright House Networks Field that ends with a fireworks display, Principal Keith Mastorides said. The other school ceremonies will be at Tropicana Field, Ruth Eckerd Hall or USF’s Sun Dome in Tampa. Five schools that held ceremonies outdoors last year will be inside now.
“Tradition plays a huge part in keeping the ceremony at the school, but for us it’s also an hour drive to any other venue big enough to hold us,” Tarpon Springs Principal Clint Herbic said. “Tarpon is such a community school, every year there are alumni that come to graduation that don’t even have kids or family members at the school anymore. It was important we keep the ceremony accessible for them, too.”
For 51 years the school has held the ceremony on the football field. The last ceremony interrupted for weather that school employees can remember was in the 1960s or 1970s, Herbic said. Two years ago, a section of the bleachers flooded out, but the school had the flexibility to hold the ceremony the next day.
At Clearwater, the decision was up to the students, Mastorides said, and tradition once again trumped comfort. But at St. Petersburg, students are excited for their indoor ceremony, Bennett said.
“Some of the kids have legacy families here, grandparents and great grandparents that have walked across Stewart Field, but I told them they get to create a new tradition,” Bennett said. “No one else can say they were the first class to walk across Tropicana Field.”