By: Scott Way
You may have seen the viral video of students at Somerset Island Prep in Key West enjoying their graduation ceremony on personal watercraft. With the coronavirus pandemic putting an end to social gatherings and with few options to celebrate the momentous occasion, a small school in Florida found a creative solution: instead of an auditorium and a stage, they went with sandy beaches and PWC's. For principal Thomas Rompella and his staff, they took the opportunity to practice what they preach: find a solution to a problem using their creativity and ingenuity. In their first year under a new program and with a graduating class of 11 students, Rompella and right hand man Nick Wright found themselves spitballing ideas about how to give students a day to remember.
"We didn’t want to do a virtual graduation. Our big thing has always been the growth mindset. We tell the kids that if there’s a challenge, you have to be creative to find a way to overcome it. And that kind of flipped on us (laughs), so we had this challenge we needed to overcome and show them we were going to find a way to give them the special graduation that they deserved," said Rompella.
After the May 26th ceremony went viral, we talked to Rompella about the backstory behind the event and what it was like for students who received their diplomas by boat.
"It was great. One of the funny things is, a lot of people assumed that these kids had jet skis or had them around, but only two of the kids had ever been on a jet ski before. I had never been on a jet ski before. So we practiced for 3 hours, and we stopped at the beach for a bit too (laughs). You couldn’t see their faces because they were wearing masks, but you could tell they were having the time of their life. They each practiced going up to the boat. It was safe and supervised. It worked well for everybody."
With the help and support of the local community, Rompella was surprised to see how quickly people jumped onboard:
"There’s a watersports company down here called Fury Water Adventures Key West, so we reached out to them. And right away I was really shocked how everybody from the schoolboard, to the faculty, I thought they would just say no, but everyone just said flat out ‘yes’ right away. So we started planning it and everything came together."
But not without a few hiccups first. With the safety of staff and faculty paramount, Rompella and his staff had to work within new their parameters while tackling the unusual duty of handing out diplomas by boat:
"One of the other interesting things about this story is that the superintendent of our school district actually did not want us to have live graduation ceremonies at this time, so the plan was to delay them. And so we kinda went against that (laughs). His reasoning was he didn’t want crowds, because it’s not necessarily about who you invite it’s about who shows up. So we didn’t have our parents come, but some of them got creative and went out on boats and watched it anyway (laughs). So that’s why we created the video for our parents to see it. We actually had only 11 total guests including staff."
When asked about how exactly the parents managed to work within the rules, he found that creativity not only abounds in his students, but in their parents as well:
"I think we had two boats with parents. Most of them showed up anyways (laughs), but they got the message that we were trying to keep it small. And we were really lucky because as soon as people saw what was going on, it grabbed everyone’s attention. And there was a pier there, so a lot of us and the parents got to see it from the end of the pier."
The best part? Famous musician Pitbull, Mr. Worldwide himself, retweeted the story to the delight of staff and students:
"The staff were all happy but the parents and the kids, and even the whole school, have been ecstatic. One of our students posted a video, and Pitbull tweeted it, and the parents called and said he was running around the house yelling and screaming and he’s all excited that he’s on Pitbull’s Twitter feed. So there have been a bunch of unique stories in all this, and it was a chance to inspire, and all the newspapers and coverage have made it that much more special for them."
So how do you top a graduation ceremony like this, when you've set the standard so high? Go even higher.
"I’ve heard a few ideas (laughs). We’ve heard the best way to do it is land, water, or sky, so I laughed and said ‘sky’ so that’s maybe something we can work out for next year. Our goal is to keep this as a tradition as long as we can put the fun into it, that’s what we’ll continue to do."