"I can't believe we're still best friends." The murmurs rise as six high school seniors at The Classical Academy jostle their way to the elementary school playground to be photographed.
The three guys and three girls bonded in kindergarten at The Classical Academy, or TCA, in Academy School District 20.
An impressive 62 percent of the class of 2018 started in kindergarten and are graduating this month, said TCA spokeswoman Tisha Harris.
TCA is the state's largest charter school, with 3,800 preschoolers through 12th-graders.
"We're like a family," said senior Brady Miller. "I know everybody's moms, and a lot of teachers are close friends. I'm grateful for that."
From the half- dozen besties at TCA to two Lewis-Palmer High School seniors who have been in the same Girl Scout Troop since elementary school to a Harrison High student who has had perfect attendance since kindergarten, these soon-to-be-graduates have been in it for the long haul.
With what will be a bittersweet graduation in sight - they will be separating, after all - reliving their childhoods is fun, perhaps as much as when the memories were created.
"I've been getting so many flashbacks," said TCA senior RaeAnn Queener, who for one period this semester is a teaching assistant in her former kindergarten class.
Some in the TCA group met as toddlers and waddled in diapers and splashed in the bathtub together.
"One time I was thinking about going to a different school, but we've built so many friendships, and they're so strong - it keeps me going knowing that I have such good friends," said Jared Belcher.
Brady liked playing sharks and minnows on the playground in kindergarten.
Raegan Bervig said she was "super stressed" about her reading level when she started school. But then she got the hang of it.
Raegan wanted to be friends with Gracey Thompson because she liked her name. "I remember looking at her nametag and thinking, 'That's such a cool name.'"
Kicking balls over the school fence, visiting a pumpkin patch in the fall, throwing water balloons at the annual Field Day and playing cops and robbers also stand out in their minds.
The elementary school graduation ceremony marked a turning point, Brady said.
"We all walked by ourselves to Mary Kyer Park up the street, went to Coffee and Tea Zone and played basketball," he said. "That was the first time we ever organized a big group hangout. Everybody was eating Popsicles."
Not much has changed for the group known as "Titan Nation" among their peers.
The park and coffee shop are still their go-to meeting places, and they enjoy shooting hoops whenever they can.
"Everything at the park is a good memory," said Gracey.
"It's been a happy place for a long time," Raegan agreed.
All athletic, smart, outgoing and competitive, the youths have shared laughter and tears, failure and successes, and many experiences they will never forget.
They endured Brady's scary brain bleed in his sophomore year that nearly took the life of the popular football, track and basketball player.
"I've been with these people for 13 years," he said. "We're all best friends, not just acquaintances. I don't think I'll lose them ever."
Often, when Brady arrives home after track practice, the friends already are there, doing homework, eating, messing around.
Over the years, the Miller house became the place to be.
"He's got the Xbox, the ping pong table, the trampoline, the good snacks, and his dad is the bomb," Raegan said.
Brady's father is one of the school's football coaches.
Together, the friends got through the pain of losing another close friend to what was thought to be suicide.
"A lot of us were really good friends with him - we lost him during sophomore year - and it brought us together even more," said Brayden Luft.
They also cheered on RaeAnn when she made the junior high football team.
Their friendship has become a connection they believe will be permanent.
"It's a different type of bond," RaeAnn said. "We went through the hard stuff, and we had each other to lean on."
They know each other's histories as well as their own.
"So much of my life story is within 3 miles of this campus," Raegan said. "I've gotten really close to these people, and it's sad to leave."
As they hurtle into adulthood, Brady, Raegan and RaeAnn have chosen to attend the same college, Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Ariz. Jared will head for the University of Kentucky as an Air Force ROTC student. Brayden will play baseball for The Master's University in Southern California. And Gracey will study business at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Gracey said she's been sad lately: "Just knowing we won't be in class together again is weird because I've never been without them since kindergarten."
Gail Bone, who taught the kids in sixth grade and taught them all math in high school, said the students are similar to how they were in elementary school.
"They're high-spirited and very engaging, or quiet and totally competent, or social and driven," she said. "Thinking back to them in sixth grade, each one was calmly confident and comfortable in their own skin. That's amazing for any 12-year-old."
Today, "Clearly, they are comfortable with each other and trust that the others have their back."
Bone said having friends who have known you since you were little is "rare and precious."
"Usually, someone who has known you that long usually carries a title of family member," she said. "Furthermore, these folks have spent all day together through many years; they have seen each other's spectacular moments as well as each other's blunders; they have lived through shared joys and shared grief; and they have chosen to remain supportive of each other throughout it all."
Girl Scouts and best friends
Elizabeth Beagle and Madie Hwang-King have been in the same Girl Scout troop since elementary school. They fight and make up like siblings. That's what they think has made them close.
"Elizabeth is an only child, and I'm like her sister," says 18-year-old Madie. "She makes me so annoyed sometimes."
"We have similar personalities," 17-year-old Elizabeth chimes in.
"Yeah, we're both just stressed out all the time," Madie says.
They are academically competitive as well. Madie is preparing her valedictorian speech, ranking first in her graduating class at Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument. Elizabeth is in the school's No. 5 spot.
"I got killed by AP (advanced placement) classes," said Elizabeth, who took five this semester.
In Girl Scouts, they graduated from staying in cabins with running water to yurts to tents.
They stopped selling Girl Scout cookies last year because they felt that's for younger girls. People are less likely to buy from older Scouts, they say.
"It's more bonding once you get older," Elizabeth said. "Being a group of friends and getting away from all the drama at school. It's not your typical friend group."
The judgment that normally clouds relationships for teenage girls isn't usually part of Scouting, the girls say. There's more praise, support and honesty. And the only person you have to be is yourself.
"It's a different group of friends than what you have at school," Elizabeth said.
Because their peers judge them for being Scouts in high school, they don't mention it. "If you say you're in Girl Scouts, they say, 'Oh, ha, ha,'" Madie said. "They think it's a little kid thing."
But, Elizabeth said, "If you say, 'I'm in a girl awareness program,' people think that's cool."
The two have done many service projects as Scouts, helping senior citizens and younger Scouts, and cleaning cages and creating a video for the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, which helped animals get adopted.
Madie said scouting has taught her how to lead, mentor and cope."It's gotten me through high school," she said. "It's given me a group to de-stress with."
After they complete their childhood journey, Elizabeth and Madie will be a 20-minute drive, or 45-minute train ride, apart. Madie is going to Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and Elizabeth to Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
"I guess fate wants us to be friends still," Elizabeth said.
"I think we'll stay lifelong friends," Madie said.
Along with lessons about the importance of honesty, truth and kindness, said troop co-leader Susan Davies, the adults also instilled the idea that the girls will have a lot of relationships in their lives, but "it's your girlfriends that will keep you going."
Davies said it's been fun to watch the two mature.
"Every year we'd say, 'This year, you're probably ready to be done with Scouts' - because we as leaders were - but every year they'd say no," Davies said. "It's been a safe place to be together, grow together and explore careers together. It's sad it's coming to an end."
Perfect attendance all about discipline
William Malmgren II, who is graduating from Harrison High, hasn't missed a day of school since he started kindergarten in Harrison School District 2 in August 2005 at Stratmoor Hills Elementary.
That's more than 2,300 consecutive days of school.
William chalks up his perfect attendance in his 13 years at Harrison D-2 schools to "a lot of discipline" and "constantly just pushing myself forward.
"I've been sick quite a bit," he said, "but I'd push through the day and hope I got better by the next day."
Did he worry about making other kids sick?
No, he said, because some other kid had made him sick.
William's never even been tardy.
His attendance feat wasn't a goal, but as the years passed, it became a habit.
"It doesn't feel like it's been that long," he said. "It's an accomplishment anyone can achieve with enough willpower."
His mother scheduled doctor and dentist appointments around school hours, and family vacations were planned for when school wasn't in session.
He didn't even participate in Harrison's traditional senior skip day this year, "So I wouldn't wreck my perfect attendance."
"It's all about making sacrifices," he said. "You're going to end up missing breakfast some days; you're going to have to keep pushing forward."
William ranks sixth in his class and plans to study mathematics at Doane University in Nebraska, where he thinks he might start another run of perfect attendance. Only four years, pshaw.