PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — We're less than a week away from the start of high school graduation season across our area.
For schools, it's a return to the ceremonies they knew before the COVID-19 pandemic. And for some students WPTV spoke to, the moments are even more meaningful after all they've gone through these past few years.
The stage is almost complete at the Expo Center at the South Florida Fairgrounds. And this year, a lot more people can fit inside the venue to cheer on the graduates as they walk across the stage.
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Endry Rodriguez has a little fine tuning left to do on his graduation speech.
"After a long long time and really four years of hard work, I'm finally graduating at the top of my class," Rodriguez said.
At John I. Leonard High School in Greenacres, Rodriguez is proud to honor his heritage, moving from Spain to the United States when he was in elementary school.
"Being the first student that has ever graduated from the International Spanish Academy as the valedictorian is just an honor because I get to represent all the Latino community and I get to represent where I'm really from and be able to give them a good name," Rodriguez said.
Fellow graduates Karla Gonzalez and Sun Jolteus from Lake Worth Community High School have a lot to be proud of, too. They're the first in their families to graduate and head to college after arriving in the U.S. just years ago.
"I just worked so hard and pushed myself to learn the language into the American system," Gonzalez said. "It's really hard but I did it."
"After all the hard work, after everything we've been through with the pandemic, it's like a reward to our class," Jolteus said.
Eric Stern, the graduation coordinator for the School District of Palm Beach County, said he's thrilled it will be business as usual for graduation after having seniors in a separate room and a smaller crowd in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Watch last year's graduation ceremonies:
"We are back to capacity," Stern said. "We are back to 4,500 tickets per school, which is where we were prior to the pandemic. So yes, some schools will give out eight tickets per family. I think Pahokee is giving out 40 per family."
Stern said the school is looking forward to getting back to 2019, calling it a "big relief when district leaders realized they could hold a traditional graduation ceremonies this year.
"We were excited for the families, the parents, the grandparents to come in-person," Stern said. "The students to go back to what a normal, typical graduation ceremony looks like here in Palm Beach County."
Last year, each student only received about two tickets for family members. Seats were in pods of two, spaced six feet apart.
"This year, they are going to enjoy all the bells and whistles. The bands, the chorus, hearing all the speeches, listening to the audience and their reactions. It's going to be cherished for all of our seniors and the school staff, too," Stern said.
Watch last year's graduation protocols:
Stern has been coordinating graduation ceremonies for the School District of Palm Beach County for the past 12 years.
"Being involved in the ultimate district event, seeing kids walk across the stage, is what kind of gets me going every day," Stern said. "Being able to help run this and support the schools and make sure it's a great moment for our seniors and schools is what I'm all about. I love that moment."
Facial coverings will be available for those who want to wear them and hand sanitizer will be available throughout the venue.
28 ceremonies will happen at the Expo Center at the South Florida Fairgrounds this year, with Pahokee Senior High School and Glades Central Community High School experiencing the full-out Fairgrounds graduation ceremony for the first time. Before the pandemic, they held graduations in their school gyms.
Stern said that if families are looking for additional tickets, they can get in touch with their school's principal to find out about availability. The number of tickets given per student is based on the size of the graduating class. Doors will open an hour before the ceremony begins and seating will be on a first-come, first-served basis.
The music will be louder and the celebrations that much sweeter.
"This means everything. It's a memory they are going to cherish forever," Stern said. "It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it."
And for three students from three different countries, walking across that stage achieves a dream, not only for themselves, but for their families, too.
"I'm gonna have my entire family there watching me because it was a special moment that I worked toward," Rodriguez said. "That title, just for them and myself."
"I just have tried my best and pushed myself really hard to get my work done and make my mom proud," Gonzalez said.
"They should be shouting my name out loud in the crowd," Jolteus said.
Proud of what they've overcome and looking forward to what's ahead.
Jolteus works at the Lantana Road Branch Public Library and will attend Lynn University on a full ride scholarship next year.
"I have no words. When I learned I got the full ride scholarship, I was so stunned. I was on the phone because they called me. I was so stunned," Jolteus said. "I feel really great. It's a great thing I'm completing, finishing high school."
Jolteus is glad the ceremony is happening in-person.
"I was worried I would not have that moment I would walk across the stage. But I feel really happy that the class of 2022 got the chance to walk across the stage and, as well, our class had everything else," Jolteus said. "We had prom, grad bash. We had everything this year. It was really amazing."
Jolteus has accomplished a lot since arriving in the United States several years ago.
"I am an immigrant child. I am from Haiti. I immigrated here in 2018. It was really hard at first with school and understanding the language, I couldn't really understand classes. But as time goes by, I started understanding all," Jolteus said. "It was very hard, but I still made it through with the help of my teachers, the Boys and Girls Club, and many friends helping me. My family is very proud of me and very supportive and they see the hard work that I put in and I want to be that example for my brothers and sisters that anything you put your mind to you can achieve them."
Gonzalez can't wait to walk across the stage.
"I feel great. I feel really excited that we can do it in-person. At first I thought it was going to be online, which was really sad because of all the hard work for no reason," Gonzalez said. "One friend is traveling from Guatemala to see me graduate in-person, so that has me really excited, too."
Rodriguez said becoming valedictorian has been his goal for years.
"It was a really hard place to get into because ever since I was in ninth grade, I genuinely said, oh, I'm going to be valedictorian," Rodriguez said. "And ever since then I've been working hard toward it. I've been just bulldozing right toward that title."
Rodriguez moved from Spain to the U.S. when he was about 9 years old.
"It was a big culture shock. The things over there were done so differently than they are over here," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez added being in the International Spanish Academy has been a great experience.
"Being able to use my home language in core classes actually meant a lot because it's not every day you get to use your home language outside of your house," Rodriguez said. "Being able to practice that and not lose where you're from and your roots honestly meant a lot to me because it was a touchback with home. And I felt comfortable using that language in my own house with my own family."
Rodriguez is excited to have graduation in-person, the way it used to be.
"All these years I've been working so hard just to have a graduation in-person and I feel like even though the situation didn't allow back then, I feel like all the other graduating classes should have what we had this year," Rodriguez said. "But thankfully the whole situation has died down enough so we can have this graduation. And honestly, it makes me feel thankful and proud of what I've done so far."
Rodriguez has advice for younger students.
"For all the kids that have been in the position where they go into the class and they don't know what the language is and they don't know how to speak English, which is the main language here in the United States, to not feel alone because I've been in that situation before and sometimes you can feel very down on yourself and alone. And I just want to say I've been in that position before and look where I am now," Rodriguez said. "So I think it's possible for those kids to bulldoze and have a bright future ahead of them, even if they might not know the language."
About 12,000 students will graduate from Palm Beach County public schools with ceremonies beginning at the Expo Center at the South Florida Fairgrounds on Monday, May 16.
You can see the full graduation schedules from all of our local counties by clicking these links: