On the last day of school Thursday at De Anza Middle School in Ventura, Shelley Garduno and seven of her classmates--all dressed to the nines--hopped into a white stretch limousine for a cruise up the coast and a late lunch in Santa Barbara.
As classes ended at De Anza and many schools across Ventura County Thursday, a number of other eighth-grade students, imitating their high school elders, were whisked from campus in chauffeured limousines.
The rented limos have become the newest fad for graduating eighth-graders in Ventura County--an expensive luxury touch that some parents and school officials view as a dangerous new trend.
At De Anza, after a morning of yearbook signing and a midday dance, two stretch limousines pulled curbside to pick up 13- and 14-year-old passengers. Several other students said they were being picked up by limousines at homes later in the afternoon for dinner and a drive.
At Anacapa Middle School in Ventura, a limousine picked up a gaggle of eighth-grade girls for an afternoon drive and a possible trip to a fast-food restaurant, Principal Charlotte McElroy said.
"They all just crammed into the limousine and took off," McElroy said. "I asked them what they were going to do and they said just drive around. Something was mentioned about driving to McDonald's. I'd like to see that limousine at the drive-through window."
At Anacapa's school dance earlier this week, McElroy said, a dozen limousines deposited eighth-graders and then parked outside, waiting to pick students up afterward.
"We try to explain to youngsters that not everybody can afford to do that," McElroy said. "But you have parents who come by and say, 'We understand that, but this is my child, and that's what I want to do for them.' "
In many cases, students or their parents pay as much as $300 for a three-hour limousine ride. Often, groups of students get together and split the cost themselves.
At De Anza, Garduno and seven other students paid $28 apiece to rent a stretch limousine for three hours Thursday. And De Anza eighth-grade graduate Carlos Martinez said he had split the cost of a limousine with eight other students, for about $20 each.
"It's just for fun," Martinez said. "It's a fun thing to do."
John Raftery, owner of Executive Limousine Service in Ventura, said his underage clientele has increased significantly in recent years.
"It's a very big thing now for junior high school kids," Raftery said. "Most pay for it themselves. They bring in their money in ones and fives and tens, like they've been saving up for it."
Executive Limousine rented limousines to at least five groups of junior high-age students Thursday afternoon and Thursday night, he said. The company requires parents' permission to drive minors out of town, he said.
While renting limousines at graduation time has been popular among high school students for years, school officials say the practice has only recently become a trend at junior highs and has caused concern.
In the Simi Valley Unified School District, concern about ninth-grade students spending exorbitant sums of money on graduation dances, dresses, tuxedos and limousines is one reason a district task force recommended restructuring the entire school system.
The reconfiguration plan for Simi Valley calls for changing junior high schools from a seventh- through ninth-grade configuration to a middle school concept, typically sixth- through eighth-grades.
"We want to encourage kids to be their own age," spokeswoman Pamela Spencer said.
Some parents are against the practice of renting limos for graduation.
"I think it's insane," said parent Sharon Gasner, adding that while she discouraged her daughter, an eighth-grade student at Los Altos Intermediate School in Camarillo, from spending a lot of money on graduation, other students and parents seem to do so without hesitation.
"I think it's really sad and takes away from the excitement for when you become a senior," Gasner said.
De Anza Assistant Principal Trudy Arriaga said her school also discourages it. "We try to be low-key," she said.
Indeed, at De Anza's dance Thursday, most students wore shorts and sneakers or suits and dresses, and afterward were picked up either by parents or the school bus, or walked home.
Anacapa principal McElroy said she hoped that Ventura's four middle schools could get together and formulate a "hard, fast rule" forbidding limousines and other high-profile expenses at future eighth-grade graduation events.
"But if we do, we may have parents telling us we're violating their rights," McElroy said. "We're literally caught in the middle."