Edison High's Class of 2017 prepares to graduate without valedictorian Neng Thao

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Neng's family wants his entire class to be honored and doesn't want the graduation ceremony to center around his loss, but the class and school will always hold a special place for him. (KFSN)

Over 550 seniors from Edison High School will be receiving their diplomas Monday night and will soon begin the next chapter of their lives.

The school's principal says she's already had to rewrite her speech three different times, trying to find the right words to say to the class of 2017.

"They're just good hearted individuals, but they also are full of spirit and they're great competitors," principal Lindsay Sanders said.

Excited students practiced pacing, formation and seating during a two-hour walk through on Monday morning.

"It's a great honor excited to be here," class vice president Sambria Morgan said. "I'm just glad we finally got to this moment."

But throughout the practice run, one front row seat remained empty. That seat was where valedictorian Neng Thao would be sitting.

Thao tragically died after he was swept away and drowned in the San Joaquin River just two weeks ago. He would have been attending UC Berkeley in the fall in hopes of becoming a pharmacist.

"It was a loss none of us were expecting, and I know a lot of his close friends," class president Anou Vang said. "It was really hard of them, but he will definitely be in our hearts tonight and I'm so glad to be representing him in our hearts."

Sanders says Thao's family wants his entire class to be honored and didn't want the graduation ceremony to center just around his loss. Sanders say they will remember Thao as a true definition of their class, a student who stood for education and bettering the community.

"His walking partner is going to walk independently with a white bouquet to represent him," the principal said. "And, of course, we'll have a moment of silence, but we're also using his memory as a catalyst to remind us of what makes Edison great and what makes our students great."

Sanders says in honor of Thao, his seat will hold the bouquet of flowers and his cap during the ceremony.

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