A sea of red poured into McCallie Avenue in front of Memorial Auditorium on Saturday morning as Brainerd High School's new graduates shed their scarlet caps and gowns and erupted into shouts, laughter and tears.
"I didn't think this day would ever get here," said Brainerd grad Ueronica Watkins as she juggled a bouquet of roses and a bevy of large balloons. "Oh, I'm so, so happy."
Similar scenes played out across Hamilton County all day Saturday as 18 schools awarded diplomas and bade good luck to the class of 2011.
At Ooltewah High School's commencement, McKenzie Arena echoed with the cheers of family and friends.
Principal Mark Bean said several students were victims of the tornadoes that hit the nearby Apison area, but they pressed ahead toward commencement.
"It was a struggle, but we have a great group of faculty and staff, and we were able to make sure that we got them through," Bean said. "The class of 2011 is fabulous."
About 2,300 county students were expected to graduate this year, county schools spokeswoman Danielle Clark said.
It's too early to release a graduation rate for 2011, since many students will complete their degrees after summer school, Clark said.
In 2010, the county's graduation rate was about 80 percent, up 10 percent from 2009.
It is also too early to nail down any firm numbers of college-going high school graduates - that will be tallied after college enrollments are confirmed next fall, she said.
For the past two years, about 72 percent of graduates have gone on to start college, according to Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation.
"Its increasingly clear that an awful lot of jobs require more and more education," Challener said.
Clark said that so far, members of Hamilton County's 2011 senior class are bound for more than 150 colleges in at least 30 states, though most are heading to in-state colleges.
"It's really hard to tell what our figures will be this year," said Clark. "But we definitely know we have more students applying to college and more interest in college than we've seen before."
Selene Rodriguez, who graduated Saturday from Ooltewah High School, is the first in her family to graduate from high school.
"My family has been so supportive, making me study really hard and not give up. I'm just so happy to be finished," said Rodriguez, who plans to study nursing at Chattanooga State in the fall.
College will not be the next step for all grads, though. Watkins plans to join the Coast Guard in Jackson City, Tenn., in six months.
"I'm super nervous. And I'm sad because I don't know if I'll see a lot of my best friends again," she said.
It was a bittersweet day for many parents, including Rhonda Beard, who watched her daughter Lindsay graduate from Ooltewah High. "We're extremely proud of her, but we're sad that she's leaving home," Beard said. "End of one thing but the beginning of something really exciting for her."