Ocracoke School, Ocracoke, NC, Class of 2017
Standing on the ground from left to right. Eldon Robinson, Kyle Tillett, Dylan Sutton, Kaylee Gaskins, Carson O’Neal, Matteus Gilbert, Waylon Underwood, Karla Perez, Spencer Gaskins, Stacy O’Neal, Bricia Moreno, Jordi Perez and Jade Lopez. In the tree from left to right, Hunter O’Neal, Brieanna Boos, Karen Perez and Sydney Austin. Photo courtesy of Ocracoke School

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By Connie Leinbach

On Ocracoke, high school graduation is a community event.

This year’s graduating class of 17, one of the largest in recent years, decided to celebrate and invite the entire community following the awarding of diplomas on June 11.

Families of the graduates and celebrated at a party set up on the lawn of the Berkley Manor, complete with a tent, dance floor and a deejay.

“We all decided it,” said one of the seniors, Karla Perez. “Sydney (Austin) came up with the idea of having one big party instead of 17 separate parties. Jason Wells made us personalized pizzas.”

Perez, who works at SmacNally’s, will attend Pitt Community College and then will transfer to a four-year university. She plans to study pre-med.

The graduation ceremony itself is different from other ceremonies since the keynote speakers typically know the graduates and speak personally about each one.

This year’s keynote speaker was Janet “JuJu” Baker, who has known almost all of the seniors since they were in day care at Ocracoke Child Care.

Before she spoke, she directed the seniors to go off the stage and sit on the floor on a carpet for “carpet time” in front of her.

The graduates face JuJu Baker, keynote speaker, as she talks about having known them since they were pre-K. Photo by Rachel O’Neal

“You were my first pre-K class,” Baker said, having moved to the island in 2001. “You were teething at the time. My babies. You went and grew up on me.”

Baker related what each student as toddlers had wanted to be when they grew up, such as a pirate, super heroes, a princess, a mermaid, even engineers and surf-board makers.

Graduate Hunter O’Neal wanted to be a fire fighter, she said, and O’Neal indeed became a volunteer with the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Dept. last year.

One of Baker’s fondest memories is when she had the students make “leprechaun traps” for St. Patrick’s Day.

“When St. Patrick’s Day came, we showed up and all the traps had been destroyed,” she said to the laughter of the crowd in the Ocracoke School gym where graduation was held. “But there was glitter everywhere and candy and coins, and a note that said, ‘Great traps, but better luck next year.’”

Baker, who most recently hails from Malibu, Calif., where she was a pre-K teacher for 20 years before coming to Ocracoke, told her “babies” to never lose that wonder and excitement for learning that you had in pre-K and Big Kids Club.

“Never forget that each of you is my favorite,” she said. “Now go and save the world. Peace out.”

Another novelty of the Ocracoke School graduation is that the graduating class gives a community service award to a member of the community.

Rudy and Pat Austin are this year’s Community Service Award recipients. Photo: C. Leinbach

This year, the graduates honored Rudy and Patricia Austin, grandparents of graduate Sydney Austin.

“It was a total shock,” Rudy said after the ceremony.

The Austins have been involved with the community for “the bulk of their married life,” through work and community service, said Class Valedictorian Carson O’Neal in announcing the recipients.

School Principal Walter Padgett, who retires July 30, noted that the class members’ sports achievements include taking the school to regional and state championships in basketball, cross country and track and field.

As a class, they successfully completed 30 college classes and 15 AP classes for approximately 80 college credits awarded, said school guidance counselor Mary McKnight.

The following are the list of graduates and the college scholarships they received.

Karen Perez, will attend Meredith College and will continue to run cross country and track and will study exercise science. She received $5,000 in scholarships.

Carson O’Neal will study sports and exercise medicine at UNC Chapel Hill.

He received the $30,000 George and Frances London Scholarship and the $12,000 Golden Leaf Scholarship along with another $1,000 from Tideland Electric EMC.

Dylan Sutton, class salutatorian, will attend NC State. He was accepted into the Engineering Village where he will live and study with like-minded first-year engineering students. He received the $10,000 SECU scholarship over four years.

Sydney Austin received $2,500 and will attend Cape Fear Community College to continue her basketball career. She attained 1,770 total career scoring points, making her the school’s newest basketball great. Austin also became Hyde County’s first ever state medalist as the fourth-place winner in the high jump at the North Carolina high school track-and-field championship May 20. Her area of concentration is undecided.

Karla Perez received $4,000 in scholarships.

Matteus Gilbert, who will attend Virginia Tech for pre-law, received $3,500.

Ocracoke School’s graduating Class of 2017.

Jordi Perez, who will attend UNC Greensboro for pre-denistry, received $5,500.

Hunter O’Neal, who might attend a technical school, will continue to help with his family’s business of oyster farming. He received $3,000 worth of oyster spat from the Devil Shoal Oyster and Clam Co. to begin his oyster-farming business in Pamlico Sound.

“Ocracoke School values all types of education whether it’s in a typical brick-and-mortar school or out in the sound waters,” McKnight said.

Spencer Gaskins will go to ECU to study industrial distribution and logistics. He received $3,000.

Already a business owner of Hang 10 Smoothies having purchased the business last year from her aunt Marlene Mathews, Kaylee Gaskins will study education at Beaufort County Community College. She received $1,600 including a new scholarship this year of $100 from the school’s first grade, with whom Gaskins worked this year.

In honor of Gaskins, the grade began their own scholarship, the First Grade Class Education Scholarship, McKnight said.

Bricia Moreno and Brieanna Boos will attend Pitt Community College.

Jade Lopez is graduating early to work and spend time with her daughter, Melissa.

Kyle Tillett will attend ECU.

Eldon Robinson is undecided.

Stacey O’Neal will attend Montgomery County Community College in Pa., to study accounting.

Waylon Underwood is interested in a career in music production.

After the ceremony, graduated seniors traditionally receive well wishers on the school deck. Photo: C. Leinbach


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