Ocracoke School Principal Leslie Cole recounts the unconventional school year for the Class of 2020, seated in front. Photo: C. Leinbach

By Connie Leinbach

Ocracoke School’s Class of 2020 had a memorable year, but nothing happened as they had planned.

Hurricane Dorian last fall and the current COVID-19 pandemic threw this senior class curve balls they did not expect, said Principal Leslie Cole, the commencement speaker at the June 14 graduation ceremony.

Due to social distancing concerns, graduation for the eight-member class was held outside at the NPS parking lot so that families and the community could watch from inside their cars or golf carts. It also was broadcast on Ocracoke’s community radio WOVV 90.1 FM.

The evening was clear though breezy and occurred in a short window of time between bouts of day-long rains.

Cole, who before she became assistant principal and then principal, said this group, in their eighth grade, was the last class she had taught before moving up the academic ladder.

“So I was so excited for them to have their senior year,” she said.

Only it did not happen as planned.

“September 3 was the last day of school as we knew it,” she said. “It was the last day before our lives would be turned upside down, and we didn’t even know it.”

Community members attend the Ocracoke School Class of 2020 graduation in their vehicles. Photo: C. Leinbach

The morning of Sept. 6, Hurricane Dorian, brushed by the island swamping it in a 7.4-foot high storm surge that flooded and devastated the island. Ocracoke School was unusable and is undergoing rebuilding.

School will take place later this year in 11 modular units that will be set up on the school lawn along Back Road while the old building is torn down and a new one built.

After a month off from classes last September, Ocracoke School resumed in three locations: preschool and kindergarten in the Ocracoke Child Care building; elementary grades in the second floor of Ocracoke School; and high school classes in the NCCAT building and online.

For these changes alone, the students would have had plenty of changes to deal with, particularly the new reality of rebuilding the village.

“You learned what it was like to endure–endure when you didn’t think it was possible to go on in the early days after to this storm and that life would never be okay again,” Cole said. “You learned what it was like to help others and that the kindest act or gesture sometimes came from complete strangers.”

Then, a second disaster hit.

Members of the class of 2021 line up with the 2020 graduates. Photo: C. Leinbach

“So, as all of you were learning these things after the hurricane, what could possibly make this year more interesting?” Cole asked. “Enter COVID-19 to make sure that you really, really understood this from Dorian.”

One hallmark for this class was that it had three “first days”: The actual day on Aug. 29; the first day returning after Dorian; and then a first day of virtual classes due to the pandemic.

Valedictorian Mila Ortiz, after thanking the Ocracoke community, encouraged her classmates to be receptive to change.

“Allow yourself to be influenced and strengthened by it rather than intimidated,” she said. “As you move forward in your lives seek to be different, because differences are what make us strong.”

Salutatorian Jesi Franklin said the class had to give up many senior traditions, such as prom and senior night.

“However, we would not let these series of events taught us our senior year,” she said. “We certainly would not let these events take away our graduation, the moment we have dreamed of since we were children.”

Ocracoke School’s graduating class each year present a community service award. This year the award went to Rev. Ivey Belch, pastor of Ocracoke Life Saving Church, for his efforts establishing the Bread of Life Food Pantry and for his leadership aiding the community after Dorian.  

Click here for a prior story on the graduates.

The scholarships were awarded as follows:

Emily Trejo Contreras
The Beveridge and Mayo Scholarship ($500)
Eden and Greg Honeycutt ($2,000)

Floyd Alan Doshier
Dare County Boat Builders Foundation ($2,000)

Jessica Marie Franklin (salutatorian)
Ocracoke Invitational Surf Fishing Tournament ($2,000)
In memory of Charlotte Castro ($1,000)
Ocracoke Civic & Business Association ($500)
Ocracoke Island Decoy Carvers’ Guild ($500)
In memory of David Esham ($3,000)

Vanessa Michel Garcia Lora
Ocracoke School Athletic Booster Club ($1,000)
Village Realty and Ocracoke Island Realty Scholarship ($2,000)

Jesus Armando Gutierrez Morales
The Beveridge and Mayo Scholarship ($500)

Ethan Somers O’Neal
Ocracoke Alumni Association ($500)
Ocracoke Island Decoy Carvers’ Guild Scholarship ($500)

Milagro Raquel Ortiz (Valedictorian)
Athletic Scholarship in Memory of Anna and Edward Fryer ($1,500)
In Memory of Bill Miller ($1,000)
George and Frances London Scholarship ($30,000)
OBX Scholars Program ($6,000)
Outer Banks Association of Realtors Scholarship ($1,000)

David Barnett Styron
Ocracoke School PTA ($1,000)
North Carolina Beach Buggy Association ($2,000)
Athletic Scholarship in memory of Anna and Edward Fryer ($1,500)
Ocracoke School Athletic Booster Club ($1,000)
Golden Leaf Scholarship ($12,000)
Dare County Boat Builders Foundation ($2,000)
Village Realty and Ocracoke Island Realty Scholarship ($2,000)



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