New El Capitan campus to send off first graduating class

El Capitan High Principal Anthony Johnson poses for a portrait during the first day of classes at the new school in 2013.
El Capitan High Principal Anthony Johnson poses for a portrait during the first day of classes at the new school in 2013. Merced Sun-Star file

At a campus that not too long ago was a muddy field, more than 280 seniors are preparing to receive diplomas Thursday as the first class of graduates from the reborn El Capitan High School.

Most of the soon-to-be graduates were part of the original 750 sophomore and freshman students who, in 2013, opened the Merced Union High School District’s newest campus – a site that took 10 years and $98 million to build.

Those who will walk across the stage are the ones who founded all of the Gaucho clubs and molded the school environment that exists today, one that encourages participation and embraces strong relationships among students, teachers and staff.

“They wanted to leave a legacy, and they did,” said senior counselor Andrea Evans.

The Gaucho Class of 2016 will send 40 percent of its seniors to four-year universities or colleges, including 44 to UC Merced. The seniors completed more than 36,000 hours of community service during their high school careers. The class’s graduation rate is 98 percent, and 90 percent of them have been involved in an extracurricular activity.

In terms of athletics, in just a few years varsity teams have claimed 14 championships and played in more than 20 playoff games. This school year, both the girls water polo and boys baseball teams competed for section titles, losing in the finals.

Since the first day of school in 2013, the student population has grown to about 1,600 and Principal Anthony Johnson has hired 75 teachers and 30 classified staff.

“It was a high-profile opening in the middle of a recession and an expensive school,” Johnson said. “Now, people understand the logic that made El Capitan what it has come to be.”

Though the campus is newly built and state-of-the-art with computers in every classroom, El Capitan has a long history in Merced.

The original El Capitan High School operated on Olive Avenue from 1959-1962 before it was merged with Merced High School. Alumni from those years fought for the new school to resurrect the El Cap name and adopt the original mascot and school colors. The old-school alums have their own room on the new campus, and current students refer to them as OGs, or “original Gauchos,” Johnson said.

As the seniors prepare to leave the school, they also are reflecting on their arrival.

“I was really excited because we got to start a new legacy here and start to become who we wanted to be,” said Haley DeLeon, one of this year’s valedictorians. “It’s easy to get involved here. That’s how we meet people and establish ourselves.”

By founding many of the campus clubs as sophomores, the senior class learned early on how to lead their younger counterparts, said Ethan Baker-Hayes, the student body president.

“It was a lot to take in – new teachers, new rules,” Baker-Hayes said. “It helped us to grow and be independent.”

Said Baker-Hayes: “We’re excited to see what’s on the other side of the door.”

Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477