This past Saturday, the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School held its seventh high school graduation. Seven students graduated in the year 2007.
"We were going to do it on July seventh," said Sam Berlow, president of the school's board of trustees, "but we decided that was too much."
While other graduations held round the country this time of year are reined in by tradition and large graduating classes, the charter school's graduation, like the academic experience it offers, is unique and tailored to the individual. The school does away with all tradition: no Pomp and Circumstance, no cap and gowns.
"Our graduation is completely different," said graduate Daine Harrer, a charter school student since grade three.
"Graduation is really personal," said graduate Leo Convery who plans to go to Cape Cod Community College this fall. "We get to be individuals up there instead of just one group together."
The day was warm and clear, with the buzz of excitement permeating the school grounds. Teachers rushed around putting last-minute touches on anything in need of touching, friends and family snapped photographs and the graduates hovered excitedly, reveling in the attention.
"I'm nervous and excited and sad all at the same time," said graduate Juliet Burkett, who came to the charter school as a high school freshman and will go to the University of Vermont next year.
"I've been here for nine years," said Liane FitzGerald, who joined the school as a third grader. "I won't even know what it'll be like not to come back."
Ms. FitzGerald is planning to work as a lifeguard at Lucy Vincent Beach this summer and will then head off to Argentina, Australia and New Zealand for a year of traveling before enrolling at Bates College.
Every graduate was nervous to leave the school that they had come to love over the years. "The community feels more like a family than a school," said Jack Stevenson who was clad in sneakers and is headed to the Ben Franklin Institute in the fall.
Each graduate praised the school and the love of learning that its small, intimate environment fostered in them.
"I've been to two other high schools and this is the only school I've really enjoyed," said Maria Hurwitz, who also plans to travel next year before enrolling at Hampshire College. "It restored my faith in learning. I realized how important education can be if it is done the right way."
Ms. Hurwitz reenrolled at the charter school at the end of her junior year after attending during her middle school years.
By 1:30 p.m., the tent set up outside of the school building - a traditional white one draped with brightly colored sheets for a unique and festive flavor characteristic of the school - was teeming with parents, friends, classmates, teachers and charter school alumni. Every seat was filled and a small crowd had formed along the periphery.
Alumna Emily Kavanagh, 20, was seated at the back. "I have come to every graduation," she said, her infant son in her lap and a former teacher seated on each side. "It's the charter school, it's the type of place you come back to."
The ceremony began with the seven graduates marching in to Neil Young's Old Man, each wearing flowers in their hair, their pockets or around their necks.
Robert Moore, director of the school, welcomed the crowd and introduced the graduates.
"This group represents the essence of the charter school," he said. He praised each student individually, addressing the school's first Brazilian graduate, Joao Prata, first in Portuguese and then in English.
Mr. Berlow, president of the school's board of trustees and a parent of two charter school students, distributed a $500 scholarship from Options in Education to each of the seven graduates.
He then turned his attention to the number seven, which he had researched through Google in preparation.
"‘Seven is the ray of mystical power, the foundation of the individual self freed within the two points of polarity,'" he quoted from a Web site he had come across.
"You are the gift," he told the graduates. "Accept yourself unconditionally."
As is customary at the school's graduation, different grades presented each graduate with an individual gift. The distribution of the Graduate Awards, a recognition of each senior's passions and achievements, followed.
Awards ranged from the Madeleine Albright award to the Jimmy Carter Award. "The students' passions overlap because they have inspired each other so much," said the senior class advisor Lori Shaller, who read the awards.
Each student in the graduating class is invited to give a speech at graduation. Four accepted.
Ms. FitzGerald began by thinking back, way back, to her high school days. "When I asked myself what made my education what it was, I realized that size really does matter," she said. "Class size that is."
"Learning took place within these walls and outside of the classroom," Ms. Hurwitz said of her experience. "There was no longer such a distinction between school and the other, more ‘real' part of my life. They became more integrated because I enjoyed both and felt authentic and fulfilled in both."
Mr. Prata, who moved to the Vineyard from Brazil two years ago, came to the school knowing no English. Two years later, he stood at the podium greeted by loud applause and raucous cheers.
"I want to say thank you to everyone in the charter school community," he said. "I learned many things at the charter school, the most important is that because this is my home I can go anywhere, do anything and will reach my goals."
The class then presented its own gift to the school, a handmade perpetual calender. "To help remind the school that every day counts," Ms. Burkett said.
The last person to take the podium before the distribution of diplomas was Marie Larsen, school administrator and invited commencement speaker.
"Whereas other graduations talk about idealistic futures and lofty goals, the charter school is all about the individual," Ms. Larsen said.
Later, after the ceremony, she grew nostalgic. "These guys are my life," she said. "I'm going to miss them." And then, one by one, the graduates were called up to the podium to receive the piece of paper that would move them forward and into the next phase of their lives.
As the melody of Dancing in the Moonlight filled the air, the seven graduates, diplomas in hand, walked out into the early summer afternoon under a shower of flower petals.
As he watched them go, Mr. Moore pointed out how each of the day's speakers had touched on the contributions made by the class to the greater community even though none had shared what they were going to say beforehand.
"We're going to have to energize another group of people to give back to the community the way this group did," he said.