DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – While Matanzas High School seniors were competing in their final sports games, taking finals, signing one another's yearbooks and closing out their school year, Principal Jeff Reaves was preparing his final farewell to every 2021 graduate.
From the beginning of March up until the morning of graduation at on June 2, Reaves scoured through transcripts, emails and his own memories to handwrite a personalized note to each of the 459 graduating seniors.
“I want to be positive for our students, especially in a time where there’s a lot of negativity and turmoil in the world,” Reaves said. “I wanted to shine some light on the students and encourage them as they begin their next journey in life.”
Those notes were left on each graduate’s blue and black seat so they could read them before crossing the stage and receiving their diplomas.
“It was as much for me as them, and I got the chance to learn about each student individually,” Reaves said. “It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers, but it’s the names that really matter. I was doing my part to help them feel connected as a community and have their high school experience to be positive.”
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Culinary arts teacher Lisa Kittrell said that in her 15 years at Matanzas High School and 25 years in the education field, she has never seen a principal do anything this personal for the graduating seniors.
“When the little girl, who was sitting in my row at graduation, opened up her note and read it, she went ‘Wow, I can’t believe he did this and remembered this about me,’” Kittrell said. “It was just so touching that he did that for all of the graduates. It was just so touching.”
Because of Reaves and the challenges the graduating class faced over the past year with online learning and new classroom rules as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kittrell said, it was the most outstanding graduation she has experienced at Matanzas.
“It shows he really cares for the students,” she said. “It was just very exciting and very moving.”
For each graduating class, Reaves said, he tries to work in something special based on the year. In the past he has done that through speeches, recognizing certain students during the graduation ceremony and through songs played at commencement.
In June 2020, when the pandemic kicked into high gear, Matanzas High School seniors graduated at Daytona International Speedway. The school also had customized yard signs made for each student that were placed on the football field and filmed by a drone.
“It’s just to personalize their experience at high school,” Reaves said.
The response to Reaves’ personalized notes this year has been positive, and he said he feels humbled by the experience.
“It was an incredible class of students, and I was honored to serve them,” Reaves said. “In a sense they lost five quarters. The pandemic started when they were juniors and it impacted their entire senior year.”
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In a personal Facebook post about Reaves’ graduation notes on Thursday, county Vice Chair Joe Mullins praised the principal for his dedication to the school.
"Principal Jeff Reaves is by far one of the most talented and enthusiastic people in our community," Mullins wrote.
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Florida high school principal writes 459 personal letters to graduates