PALMETTO -- With one of the smallest graduating classes in Manatee County, Southeast High School truly feels like a family to students and faculty.
The staff went out of their way to connect with the 278 graduates this year -- even outside school.
For example, senior Kaitlyn Evans said some teachers came to her piano recitals, which are not school functions. Another teacher Evans never had for class, kissed her on the cheek and wished her well before the graduation ceremony Friday at the Bradenton Area Convention Center.
"They really root for you," said Evans, a student speaker at graduation and a gold feather recipient.
Evans, Patrick Healy and Isabelle Fernandez all won
Gold Feathers as the three most outstanding members of the senior class and earned the right to speak to fellow graduates. Each year, three seniors are chosen by faculty for their scholarship, service, achievement and citizenship.
In her speech, Evans urged students to make good choices and be themselves.
"The world need something different -- it needs you," she said.
Fernandez spoke to students about life balance. It's easy, she said, to get caught up now students are no longer children.
"Sometimes you have to let loose," she said.
After letting out an excited "woo," Healy spoke to the graduates about happiness.
"We are done with this chapter," he said.
The students did not leave graduation without marching orders. Faculty speaker Steve Foster, a science teacher retiring after 38 years, talked about common misconceptions, including those within the school system.
"We've lost our way," he said. "Help us get it back."
Education has been Foster's life, he said, and he loves what he does. He apologized for getting up on a "soapbox."
He said education system problems, including over-testing students and squelching unique teachers and education systems for more common ones -- must end. Education is not a business and should not be treated as one, he said. The checks and balances in the system are gone, he said.
"Those are the things you need to fix, the things that my generation has done a very poor job of even confronting," he said.
The class of 2015 earned more than $8 million in scholarship money to help them move forward to college and careers, said David Soles, career and college counselor.
"These students are not leaving empty handed," he said.
Principal Jim Pauley said he gave his "long speech" to the seniors already, and he didn't want to keep them waiting long Friday.
"You have shown he you can meet every challenge thrown your way," he said. "Keep that drive."
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.