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One by one, as their names were called, the graduating seniors walked on stage wearing their chosen college T-shirts and baseball caps. Like star athletes do in what have become highly publicized events across the country, each one signed a commitment to their chosen school.
But most of the students on stage at Hialeah High were a good deal smaller than your typical college football players.
This was signing day for stars who do all their high scoring on math, reading and science tests — standout performances that had won them academic scholarships.
“It’s like a pep rally but this time we’re celebrating the academic achievements instead of just the athletic achievements,” said Gary Graff, the school’s activities director.
The students proclaimed their allegiance to the University of Florida, Florida International University, Nova Southeastern, UC Santa Barbara and Howard University, to name a few. Ninth- and tenth-graders watched from the audience.
“Academic Scholarship Signing Day is for us to be able to encourage students to think beyond high school,” said Heriberto Sanchez, the school’s principal. “We invite the underclassmen to observe because we want to encourage them and keep that motivation going.”
Hialeah High also posts the students’ pictures in the cafeteria on the school’s so-called “Wall of Fame” and tweets out college acceptance updates.
It’s a strategy that more principals across the state are employing to motivate younger students and to honor seniors who have worked hard to get into college. A 2010 Florida state statute encourages schools to host signing days for academic scholarships, an event Miami-Dade typically holds on the third Tuesday in April. Hialeah High hosted their ceremony just before the May 1 admissions deadline for seniors to pick their college, known as “Decision Day”.
“It’s making me a little nervous,” said senior Yodarlynis Campaneria, referring to the looming deadline. She had committed to the University of Florida on stage but was waiting to hear whether she’d been given a full-ride before sending in her admissions paperwork. The ceremony was a welcome distraction from her anxious anticipation.
“I feel like we shined. The spotlight was now ours,’’ she said. “It made me feel special and it made my friends feel special, too.”
Campaneria didn’t seem to mind that the cheerleaders, more accustomed to performing at sporting events, had chanted “Let’s go defense!” at the beginning of the ceremony while horns blared in the background and dancers swiveled their hips and waved silvery pom-poms.
“I think it’s a time where it’s really hitting you that you’re actually graduating and going to move on,” said Melissa Diaz, a senior who plans to attend Valencia College in Orlando. “It’s cool to see where all of our peers are going.”
Overall, the ceremony was a good deal less dramatic than the closely watched signing day for college football. Instead of an ESPN press conference, the ceremony finished with the high school choir singing an ode to the school.
But that’s not to say there was no suspense. As she walked toward the signing table, which was draped in a velvet Hialeah High banner, one student paused to face the crowd. Then she unzipped her sweatshirt and held it open to reveal her school of choice: Nova Southeastern.