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Marco Island Academy (MIA) the island’s charter high school, graduated its seniors on Friday night, in a ceremony at the Family Church. In a way, by doing so, the school comes full circle, as classrooms at the church were MIA’s first home when it opened its doors six years ago.

This was also completing a loop for school founder and board president Jane Watt, who sat on the stage with the dignitaries, then scooted over to be the first to congratulate, and wrap in a bear hug, her oldest daughter Olivia, a member of the graduating class.

The parents, siblings, teachers and well-wishers who filled the sanctuary at the church didn’t hear from Watt, but they did hear emotional remarks from MIA Principal Melissa Scott. She spoke of “two hurricanes, one physical, and one emotional” that had affected her this year, when after the school went through Irma, she became embroiled in controversy after filing an assault complaint against now-fired city manager Lee Niblock.

The group also heard from valedictorian Larissa Bersh, and even more from salutatorian Salvatore Piranio, who welcomed the crowd after the Marco Island Academy Band played “Pomp and Circumstance” for the processional, and functioned as something of an emcee.

In her address, Bersh told the graduates that “after tonight, it’s our turn to direct our own storms.” With a 5.5 weighted grade point average, she will be attending Stanford University in the fall.

The main commencement address came from author and speaker Lucas Irwin, a mindfulness practitioner and guru. Cutting against the traditional goal-focused thinking often heard at commencements, Irwin urged the graduates to be flexible in the pursuit of their goals.

“Goals are important, but write them in the dirt with a stick. Don’t carve them in stone,” he said. “I have a little secret for you – you can make money doing anything. Playing it safe is pretty lame.

“The saddest tragedy by far would be dying without knowing who you really are.”

Many awards were handed out to the seniors in a presentation two nights earlier at Rose History Auditorium, but they saved a couple for Friday. Scott presented the Principal’s Award to Gianna Rose, and math teacher Christopher Liebhart gave the Faculty Award to Chelsea Casabona.

Even more than some other high schools, MIA fosters a sense of family, with its small size (55 seniors graduating) , and the fact that students must choose to receive their secondary education there. As a charter school, MIA operates next to but distinct from other public schools. While many of the prospective students currently attend Marco Island Charter Middle School (MICMS), on the school district’s books, Marco Island students are zoned for Manatee Middle School, and then Lely High School. To attend MIA, students and their parents have to make a conscious decision, and then go through the enrollment process.

That sense of family was on display at graduation, in a senior class where the students have all shared experiences with each other, and everyone knows everyone. It became emotional when remembering a member of the class who wasn’t there. Connor Sorrick died unexpectedly two years ago, but was still honored at the commencement, and included as a member of the graduating class.

After crossing the stage and receiving their diplomas, and congratulations and hugs from Scott, Watt, and Vice Principal Amber Richardson, the graduates flipped their tassels from the right side to the left, with a reminder that they are worn on the left side, close to the heart. With the singing of the new “Marco Island Academy Alma Mater” and one more playing of “Pomp and Circumstance,” the graduates filed out into the lobby, where there was a whole lot of hugging going on.

“This graduation will be one of the hardest for me, because I have known many of these students since they were in kindergarten and have watched them grow throughout the years,” said Watt in an email. “I am torn between not wanting to say goodbye, but also very excited to see where their futures will lead them. Mostly, I am just thankful that I have had the opportunity to be part of their lives. It has been an incredibly journey.”

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