ST. PETERSBURG — Largo High School held its graduation ceremony for the Class of 2023 at Tropicana Field on May 13, as more than 400 seniors received diplomas from Principal Jennifer Staten.

In her first commencement speech as leader of the Packers, Staten showered her students with praise for persevering through a “tumultuous” four-year high school career that started during the pandemic.

“This year we’ve talked a lot about Packer pride,” Staten said after introducing the class leaders and school officials on the dais. “We’ve talked about perseverance, respect, integrity, and deliberate excellence. But when I look at this class of 2023, what stands out the most is their perseverance.” 

Staten, who took over for retired longtime principal Bradley Finkbiner last fall, then spoke about the difficulties the students faced over the years dealing with the repercussions of the pandemic, noting some lost family members. “Every single one of these students had their freshman year turned upside down, and every year we got to experience what school meant, again, together,” she said.

Staten concluded her speech by stating the grads have “persevered and they have risen to the occasion at every turn, and they’ve gone with the flow. … They truly rose to the occasion of every day, every period, and we will miss you so much. These are our true leaders and learners of tomorrow.”

The class officers and leaders, including the class president, the president of student government, and the salutatorians and valedictorians, then gave emotional and inspiring speeches about crossing the threshold from being a full-time student to full-time adult. Valedictorian Dayanara Gallardo-Castro was moved to tears when she marveled how she went from being “a Latina who walked into kindergarten knowing at most 10 English words, speaking at her graduation.” She thanked her parents “for everything you have done and everything you continue to do.”

After Elise Tong, valedictorian of the school’s IB program, closed the speeches stating, “Now let’s get ready to graduate!” the students made their way to the stage, shaking hands and posing for photos with Staten and other school leaders and teachers. They switched their tassels to the left to signify they are official high school graduates. 

Despite a plea from the principal to keep their caps on their heads, several Packer-blue mortarboards were flung into the climate-controlled air of the Trop before the Class of 2023 marched off the field and into the throng of friends and family members gathered outside.

Prior to the ceremony, as she went up and down the lines greeting her anxiously awaiting students, Staten shared her thoughts about her first year at the helm of Largo High.

“It went by very, very fast!” Staten said amid the hugs, handshakes, and continual stream of selfies. 

“But they were so easy because these kids bought in from day one. They rolled with the changes and handled everything that was thrown at them. I couldn’t have asked for a better first year. It was great!”