By Katie V. Jones
1:38 PM EDT, June 1, 2012
For the 20 graduating seniors at Gerstell Academy in Finksburg, the school's June 9 commencement will mark the last of many firsts.
As the school's first-ever graduating class, the seniors have played a part in forming the school's identity — from creating clubs and traditions to settings standards for college acceptance and academic achievement.
It has been a job they have done well, according to Gerstell's head of the upper school.
"This group, when you think about them, there were lots of firsts, lots of opportunities," said Gary Slyman, head of the upper school and assistant to the president.
"This is a good group. They've been ... very close for three or four years."
"I guess being the first, we were always responsible for setting the example," said Sam Goldstein, an 18-year-old Hampstead resident who joined Gerstell as a sixth-grader. "All eyes on us."
Founded in 1996 by Dr. Frederick G. Smith, an oral surgeon and vice president of Sinclair Broadcasting, Gerstell is an independent college preparatory school. The academy started first as a pre-kindergarten program, evolving over the years by adding a lower school, building its current campus on Route 140 in Finksburg in 2003, and welcoming its first sixth-grade class for the 2005-06 school year.
Those students now form the Class of 2012.
Connor Eline, 17, joined the school as a fourth-grader. His classmates are like family members, he said, and have grown close as the school and its student body have grown around them.
"All of us are great friends," said Eline, also of Hampstead. "We're almost like siblings. We all know each other so well."
One of the Class of 2012's greatest accomplishments, said Slyman, is a tradition that may be a challenge to maintain — all 20 were accepted into college, and have earned more than $1.5 million in scholarships.
"The first (student) was accepted in September, all 20 were accepted to college by January 2012," Slyman said. "That's the biggest first."
But there are other, less weighty, firsts. The Class of 2012 created a popular carnival for the lower school as a class fundraiser.
And a ring dance — a ceremony held during the junior year — gave seniors the responsibility of the "first turn" of a junior's class ring.
But that tradition didn't start until this year, because when they were juniors, the Class of 2012 had no one to turn their rings.
"We turned our own rings," Goldstein said, of the ring dance his junior year. But from now on, "the seniors will always turn rings. It's just a tradition we made up."
"We're actually brainstorming for a senior prank," Eline admitted this past week. "More of a fun, relaxed tradition, that's what we're looking for."
Eline was one of five students responsible for creating the student government and its constitution.
He also helped the school's lacrosse team win the MIAA division C championship this year — its first year in the conference.
Goldstein was the first president of the school's Spanish Honor Society. He also was one of the first members of the school's speech and debate club.
"Being the first has been an experience I was glad to have an opportunity to take part in," Eline said. "I think having those opportunities pays off in the long run in the business world and college.
"Being first is a good benefit for all of us," he said.
While the class has set much of its own course, the June 9 commencement has been planned by the administration, Slyman said.
Caps and gowns will not be worn, but rather white dresses for women, white dinner jackets for men. The ceremony will take place on Gerstell's sprawling campus, but Slyman would reveal only a few details.
"The kids don't know about it," he said. "It should be pretty unique."