Each senior had a different reason for applying to Delta High School when they were eighth-graders.
Peter Herr, 17, of Richland was interested in technology.
Nallely Centeno, 17, of Pasco liked the promise of Delta High's small student-to-teacher ratio.
Cecily Bader, 17, of Richland was attracted to the school's planned focus on hands-on learning, saying she didn't "learn out of textbooks."
Sixty-two students will graduate from the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, school tonight at the Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick.
That's little more than half of the 100 who walked into the leased buildings the school has used in central Richland since the fall of 2009.
Students, teachers and administrators said the first days, weeks and months of the innovative school had their dark moments, with students crying because of the heavy workload, teachers learning a new way of teaching and administrators worrying about the school's future.
About 40 of that initial group of 100 students left out of frustration with Delta High -- many in the first year.
"I took every single one of those kids (who left) personally," said Principal Deidre Holmberg.
But the school's first graduates said it was worth it to remain. They said they learned skills they wouldn't necessarily have acquired in a traditional high school, made memories with students they perhaps would never have met and became better prepared to survive in an increasingly technology-centric world.
"It didn't turn out like we expected but it turned out even better," said Mikayla Martin, 18, of Richland.
The birth of Delta
The Kennewick, Pasco and Richland school districts began working with private and other education partners in 2007 to develop Delta. Holmberg was a science and biology teacher and co-department head at Pasco High School when she half-jokingly suggested to an administrator she wanted to be the new school's principal.
To her surprise, she was hired.
"I had no building. I had no curriculum. I had no teachers," she said of when she started in July 2008. "I was selling vaporware."
For a year, Holmberg recruited teachers and pulled together resources for the new school. She also visited Tri-City middle schools to convince eighth-graders to enroll. The goal wasn't necessarily to bring in the top students but those most willing and able to handle a curriculum grounded in math and the sciences.
Emily Pease, 18, of Pasco, and Cecily said they remembered Holmberg visiting their middle school science classrooms and being intrigued by the idea of a new type of high school.
However, there were concerns as students pondered the choice.
Delta High wouldn't have athletics, though its students would be allowed to play for other high schools. As a new school, it wouldn't have established school traditions and events, and its first students would have to leave friends behind.
Delta High didn't offer elective courses its first year, such as band or art. All classes were integrated, meaning every subject was tied together, making it more important that students perform well in each class so they could do the work in the others.
The school used standards-based grading, a numeric scale different and generally more stringent than the traditional A-F system used by many schools, and group projects made up a significant portion of each subject.
Holmberg said the first days and weeks of classes at the school showed that even being excited about the prospect of a new educational model didn't mean you were prepared.
"(There was) a lot of crying," she said "It was very hard."
About a half-dozen students would leave every week and angry parents contacted the school, upset with their student's performance or workload.
On top of that were the challenges of logistical issues, such as getting supplies and resources for classrooms.
The seniors remember the culture shock of attending a school where coursework and homework was intensive and grading was harsh.
"It was weird to go from 110 percent in middle school to 50 percent," said Ilse Martinez, 18, of Kennewick, about her grades her freshman year.
Jim Hendricks, who taught at Kennewick's Southridge High School before moving to Delta, said it wasn't difficult to transition as the engineering technology teacher but many had growing pains that first year.
"It was a lot of work for those students as freshmen," he said. "Delta is a very rigorous school."
After a few months, enrollment stabilized.
But Holmberg said she knew the school was achieving its goal when one student came crying into her office and exclaimed, "All we do at this school is learn!"
"I laughed out loud from relief," Holmberg recalled. "I just said, 'This is a STEM school and that's the point.'"
Gradually, the students got the hang of the curriculum and teachers settled into a rhythm.
Integration of subjects began to make sense, the seniors said. They participated in internships with the school's partners, such as Battelle, and a large number of group projects.
"The relationships have stuck," Peter said.
The school also began to develop its own identity. Students established a family-friendly fall festival and organized a multicultural week each May, The highlight of each year was participating in National History Day every February, with students developing history projects for competition.
"And we get to go to Eastern (Washington University) for regionals and the crowd just explodes," Ilse said.
"Ah, but that sounds so dorky," Mikayla joked.
Moments that define high school
Delta may not be a traditional high school, but there were still moments of excitement, joy, embarrassment and stress that define any high schooler's life.
Peter said it was a fun day in physics and math last year when they used a student-built catapult to calculate the trajectory of water balloons and eggs. Mikayla said she was so nervous about making a presentation in sophomore English she fainted in front of the whole class.
The school had an open lunch period freshman year so students could go off campus to eat. That came to an end that first winter when some students went swimming in the Columbia River and came back in cold, wet clothes.
"The underclassmen hate all of us because we got off-campus lunch banned," Mikayla laughed.
Now they're all preparing for what comes after graduation and are destined for post-secondary education or training.
The majority are going on to college. Those who aren't are joining the military and will train for specific technical jobs.
Education officials and the school's supporters said it's because of this first senior class that Delta High is recognized around the state and elsewhere for its work.
"Had that first class not blazed the trail, we wouldn't have a Delta today," said Kennewick Superintendent Dave Bond. "Now we're getting 300-plus applicants a year."
Tom Yount, board president for the Washington State STEM Education Foundation, told the Herald the concept of Delta works because of the accomplishments of the graduating seniors and the expectation that nearly all of them are going on to post-secondary education.
"That clearly outpaces the norm and is something that the teachers, students and administrators should be very proud of," he said.
The graduates aren't the only ones who will continue to grow and change after they leave Delta. The districts are working to build the school a new home in west Pasco to accommodate continued growth. Holmberg is leaving to become the planning principal for the Pasco School District's three new elementary schools, which are set to be based on a STEM model.
Holmberg said she'll still have a role at the high school, though veteran Delta teacher Jenny Rodriquez will be the new principal. Most of all, though, she said she'll always be tied to the school's first graduating class.
"They can't get rid of me by graduating," she said, adding she'll be following up with them as they go through college. "Any ding dong can get into college. I'm interested in those who finish."
The seniors said they're ready to move on but receiving their diplomas today is going to be bittersweet.
Peter said they're already planning their 10-year-reunion.
"I don't know how I'm going to survive without these people," Ilse said.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; email@example.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver