Senior class president Anthony Kustura stood before a standing-room-only crowd and addressed those gathered in the Astoria High School gym.

"It has been a long time coming," he said, "and now our time is here."

The Class of 2008 graduated Saturday afternoon, marking not only a bittersweet end of 139 students' time in Astoria schools, but of a nearly decade-long series in The Daily Astorian tracking their progress.

The Daily Astorian undertook a major project in 1998 when it adopted the third-grade classes at John Jacob Astor Elementary, pledging to follow them through their high school graduation.

Over the years, we've taken readers back to school, exploring students' thoughts, worries and dreams on the front page of the newspaper.

We watched their quick uptake of modern technology as they designed Web pages in fourth grade and clamored for cell phones in middle school.

Students graciously played along as they went through some important rites of passage, opening up about their body images, self esteem and dating issues.

ALEX PAJUNAS - The Daily Astorian

Anthony Kustura, the senior class president, gives a speech describing the experience of being a member of the Class of 2008.

In high school, they let us tag along when classes were over, to their first jobs and later as they planned, then primped for Prom. They later spoke with us about the frustration and excitement of choosing a college.

By now, what began as nearly 60 8- and 9-year-olds has tapered to about 25 students, now in their late teens.

Of 23 from that original group who graduated Saturday, many wished they could do it all over again. Students reveled in their accomplishments - and their imminent freedom - but they also hoped to savor their final moments together.

Sadness amid the excitementGraduation has taken on a different meaning since the third grade, said Lynnae Huber, who found the end exciting yet sad.

"Back then, I thought it'd be all fun," said Huber. "Now I'm realizing this is the last time we'll all be together at the same time, and I'm going to have to leave my family.

ALEX PAJUNAS - The Daily Astorian

Matt Noack, along with graduating seniors John Heick, Masen Bowers and Amanda Beck, performed with the concert band one last time playing the song "Shenandoah."

I'd actually love to be in high school for another year."

Allison Quigley wasn't looking forward to saying goodbye either.

"I'm anxious to get it over with but scared at the same time," she said earlier in the week. "I baby-sit two boys every day, and I'm worried about how much I'm going to miss them."

Same goes for Hilary O'Bryan, part of the original group and one of five valedictorians in the graduating class.

"Part of me can't wait, and part of me is a little bit bummed," she said. "It's bittersweet."

At the ceremony Saturday, she and other students made sure to give credit to the staff, parents and others who supported them through their educational journey.

ALEX PAJUNAS - The Daily Astorian

Class of 2008 students Sam Johnson and Hilary O'Bryan proudly hold onto their diplomas.

They talked about friendship and the tight-knit community that surrounds Astoria High, and they thanked family members, friends, instructors and administrators for guidance and support.

Valedictorian Jamie Coggins paid a personal tribute in the form of a poem to influential teachers, coaches, administrators and other advisers.

After one of several performances by high school musicians, another valedictorian, Justin Roberts, commented on the mix of generations represented in the audience, including some likely "ecstatic to see that for a period of time longer than three minutes, the entire class of high school seniors can refrain from texting their friends on their cell phones."

He grew a bit more serious when he challenged his peers to "overcome the pretenses of old notions and put the differences and prejudices of the old behind us to make good, positive change."

"Our generation is at the forefront of a whole new era," Roberts said. "It's time for us to take the wheel."

Messages of hopeAnother parting message came from Superintendent Mike Sowder. Retiring after five years at the helm of Astoria schools, he offered two pieces of advice for seniors: always maintain a positive attitude, and "have faith in your fellow man."

ALEX PAJUNAS - The Daily Astorian

Some graduating seniors chose to liven up their mortar boards with creative decorations to wear during the ceremony.

"Remember the message I left with you; it will carry you far as you go on to the next step in your life," he said. Sowder also called his tenure here the best of his 38 years working in education. "You have a great community, school system, and especially and truly great youth," he said.

The Class of 2008 has already left its mark locally, particularly with senior projects, an AHS graduation requirement.

Although she wasn't sure about actual figures, AHS counselor Beth Thompson said the group volunteered more time and raised more money for the community than any past graduating class.

"They've really set the bar high for future senior projects," she said. "The entire class is a standout."

The class also contributed more than $1,000 to their own senior celebration, and they bought a new head for the school mascot, said Kustura, class president. Seniors also purchased a congratulatory banner that was on display Saturday and can be re-used in upcoming years. He said they'll invest what's left over in hopes of eventually building a scholarship fund.

Speaking to all the graduating seniors Saturday, Astoria High School Principal Larry Lockett said, "Already your attitudes, your determination and your belief that you cannot fail have rocked the world."

And, for a moment, he took the class back to third grade.

Astoria School District Superintendent Mike Sowder gives a farewell speech to the graduating Class of 2008 Saturday. Sowder is retiring from his post at the end of the school year.ALEX PAJUNAS - The Daily Astorian

"Dr. Seuss told you, when you were very young - back about the time The Daily Astorian started tracking the Class of 2008 - in his book "The Lorax": 'Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.'

"Class of 2008, make the world a better place."

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