As of May 11, that’s the number of students mentioned in school stories I had written or in school-related photos I had taken for the East County Observer print edition since the school year began last August.
I’d say at least 100 more students were in photos posted online as part of galleries.
This school year, I’ve covered anything from the superintendent search to JROTC teams winning state championships to elementary students making animals out of fruit.
It always puts a smile on my face when I walk into a classroom and hear, “That’s the lady from the newspaper.”
To some, these stories might not mean much other than a little insight into what's happening in our schools, but I know they make a difference to the students who see their names and faces in the newspaper.
Talking to the students and capturing their moments of success — and sometimes failures — are the best parts of my job.
But one of my greatest joys every year comes from graduation.
Much like the class of 2023, I started a new journey four years ago. While they were entering high school, I was starting my job as the education and community reporter for the East County Observer.
So this class of graduates holds a special place in my heart. They’re the first group of students I was able to cover from freshman year to the moment they walk across the baseball diamond at LECOM Park to accept their diplomas.
In 2020, I remember interviewing Braden River High's Bella Pasquale, now a senior, when she was a freshman for a story on the inspirational message her class was creating to help students through the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The interview was conducted over the phone because schools were closed. I didn’t meet her in person until the fall 2021 when I was working on another Technology Student Association story in which she’s a member. Since then, I’ve written about her numerous successes as a member of the school’s TSA chapter and the community service the chapter has done.
I've been able to see her grow as a leader in the chapter, navigating any challenges whether over virtual meetings or bringing everyone together in the classroom.
Covering my first state band championships in 2019, I took more than 500 photos. Nearly 60 photos were published in the photo gallery online, and in that bunch, there’s a photo of Shelby Henry, a Braden River High senior, who gave it her all while playing flute for the Marching Band of Pirates.
The band won its third consecutive state championship that year. As someone who played in a marching band from my freshman year of high school all through my senior year at the University of Missouri, I know the time and dedication it takes. Being there to see the success of Braden River and Lakewood Ranch’s bands made the trip to Daytona Beach and the 20-hour work day worth it.
This school year, I saw Henry take on the demanding vocals of Elsa from Disney’s “Frozen” in the high school’s cabaret show in September and later have fun with friends at her senior prom in April.
The past four years have given me the opportunity to see these seniors grow in more ways than one. I’ve met academic all-stars, talented musicians and artists, students who have overcome challenges and so many more.
I’ve seen them navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and the regular trials and tribulations high school sometimes has to offer. No matter the challenges, they’ve flourished.
These students never cease to amaze me. It’s not just the Advanced Placement classes they take, but it’s that along with the numerous extracurriculars, the community service, sports and more. It goes on and on.
Let’s take Maria Shaw, a senior at The Out-of-Door Academy, as an example. If you read my recent feature on her, you’ll know Shaw is an excellent scholar, athlete and musician. She’s taken a few AP classes, participated in orchestra, jazz band and advanced chamber ensemble as well as participated in cross-country, track and field, soccer and more. On top of all that, she interned at HCA Florida Blake Hospital.
And I thought I was a good student in high school taking two AP classes my senior year while being the editor in chief of the school newspaper, playing in the band and running cross country.
I can’t help but wonder when these students have time to sleep.
Graduation is a time to acknowledge and celebrate all of these students’ accomplishments.
Every year since I started reporting on these high schools, one of my favorite photos of the year has come from graduation. It’s the excitement on the student’s face after receiving the diploma, the wave to the crowd to thank family members or the giant cutouts of students’ faces bobbing in the stands.
So, seniors, it’s been a pleasure getting to know you and share your stories.
While you all go off onto your next adventure whether that’s going to college, starting a career or joining the military, I’ll be here at the Observer writing and taking photos of the students that will follow in your footsteps until it’s their graduation day.
Congratulations, class of 2023!
Smile big for the camera. Dance across the stage to get your diploma. Jump for joy. Hug your friends and family.
Who knows, you might end up on next week’s front page.
Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.