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    Students revel in last-day traditions

    As classes end for the summer, elementary and middle schools mark the departure of students in their top grades with games and ceremonies.

    By LORRI HELFAND

    © St. Petersburg Times, published June 7, 2001


    photo
    [Times photo: Jill Sagers]
    Briar Quinones, left, hugs her best friend and fellow kindergartener Hannah Lopez during the teddy bear song Wednesday afternoon on the last day of school at Largo Central Elementary.
    "Let's go, fifth grade!" Curtis Fundamental students shouted from the bleachers at Phillip Jones Field.

    As her classmates yelled and stomped, Veronica Adams, 11, kicked the ball toward third base and ran for first. As the ball flew, Veronica dashed all the way to third. And with her team's next kick, Veronica slid into home plate, scoring her team's first run.

    An hour later, Veronica's classmates cheered after creaming their opponents, the campus faculty, 21-1.

    For the last 14 years, the kickball game between fifth-graders and the faculty has been a last-day-of-school tradition at Curtis Fundamental. It was one of dozens of such rituals celebrated across Pinellas County to mark the end of another school year.

    For the Curtis Fundamental fifth-graders, the kickball game is a rite of passage into middle school.

    And like other schools, Curtis Fundamental crammed the week with a cookout and a carnival, along with fifth-grade breakfasts, award ceremonies and classroom parties.

    Principal Kathy Duncan said traditions create a sense of family and make the experience at her school special. And the kickball tradition is a bonus for students who have worked hard all year.

    "They like to see teachers let their hair down a bit and be people," she said.

    The festivities also cap off fifth-graders' final stand as campus big shots, Jamie Totten, 11, said as she mulled her future in middle school.

    "Now we're not at the top of the chain. We're at the bottom. But we'll get to work our way up," she said.

    At Oak Grove Elementary, fifth-graders bowled to the grooves of Will Smith and 'N Sync at Seminole Lanes. And afterward they headed back to school for a pizza party.

    [Times photo: Jill Sagers]
    Kindergartener Jesse Phipps collects his belongings to take home on the last day of school Wednesday at Largo Central Elementary.

    Such festivities also abounded at middle schools. For eighth-graders at Carwise Middle School, the last day began with a breakfast "ceremony of completion." At lunch time, principal John Leanes brought in a disc jockey. And at the end of the day, teachers escorted students to the front of the school and sang Na, Na, Hey, Hey, Kiss Him Good-bye by Steam.

    Carwise has made a big deal of the final day since the school opened eight years ago, Leanes said. The tradition, he said, prepares eighth-graders for high school.

    "It's just necessary. It's a traumatic experience. They're not sure what to expect when they go to high school," he said. "It's the next chapter in their book of being successful. I see it as a really positive transition."

    But at Kennedy Middle School, principal Freddie Robinson prefers to keep things mellow on the last day. Eighth-graders had an assembly and a field day, but sixth- and seventh-graders concentrated on "structured classroom learning," she said.

    At most high schools, where the last day is about final exams and final goodbyes, students are out the door by noon.

    And many students are able to opt out of exams entirely by making a 3.0 class average and missing fewer than 10 days of school.

    For students like sophomore Nichole Underwood, 16, showing up the last day is voluntary. Underwood spent most of the day at Safety Harbor Spa with her girlfriends and returned just to see her friends off for the summer.

    And 17-year-old senior Melanie Custer of Clearwater High School, who picked up paperwork and class pictures, said the last day wasn't a big deal compared with today's graduation.

    "I just came back to say my final goodbyes to teachers and make everything official. (Today) is the big day," she said.

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