BRADENTON -- The Inspiration Academy graduates fit in just one row of seats.
Sitting five across in the front row, four boys and one girl sat patiently waiting to be the very first graduating class of the academy, an independent Christian, coeducational, boarding and day, college preparatory school for grades six through 12 and postgraduate students on 40th Avenue West in Bradenton.
Being a small class had its advantages, especially during the graduation ceremony, where students received specialized speeches from their faculty member, watched a short video produced about them and had the opportunity to address the guests watching the ceremony.
"I'm not going to say this is unexpected, but maybe it is a little bit," said 18-year-old Travis Belsito as he was handed his diploma. Belsito is a wakeskater, an adaptation of wakeboarding, and has an "old soul," said Susan Hedgcock, his mentor. Belsito still hadn't finalized his post-grad plans.
Belsito joined Daniel Contreras, Hannah Hedgcock, Keenan O'Reilly and Samuel Speir in the graduation ceremony Friday. The five students were the "experimental" group for the academy, which sometimes posed
challenges, but overall, each graduate described as a great experience.
"We all knew we were trying to help future classes," said Speir, the son of Eddie and Claire Speir, the school's founders. Speir will attend University of Colorado Boulder next year to study in the business school.
"I'm very honored to say I've attended this school," said O'Reilly, who had a short film of his shown during the ceremony. O'Reilly will work with the school during the summer and in the fall, then either continue there or attend a small Bible college in Montana.
At Inspiration Academy, Hedgcock found her home, a place where she fit in and didn't feel bullied, even if she was the only girl in her graduating class.
"Being the only girl, I feel like a princess," she said.
The small classes and intimate feel of a class of five will be what Contreras misses the most about Inspiration Academy, he said. Contreras, a baseball shortstop, will attend a post-graduate program in Texas to help boost his grades.
The students elected a special class song, which took the place of the "Pomp and Circumstance" march which traditionally ushers graduates into the ceremony. The five students entered Friday to "The Imperial March," Darth Vader's theme song from "Star Wars."
"We're all kind of misfits that don't fit the way life wants us to fit, and to that I say praise God," said Eddie Speir.
For Claire Speir, it was an emotional ceremony, and she joked with students and guests as she tried to hold back tears. Before the ceremony ended, she imparted some last words of wisdom to the graduates before her.
"Life is more than educational theory, it is an experience to be shared."
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.