YUCAIPA, Calif. -

More than 40 high school seniors celebrated their graduation day in Yucaipa with classmates they've never seen before. They're a part of California Virtual Academies, or CAVA, an online public school for students K-12.

With friendships built on tweets, texts and Facebook posts -- the graduation ceremony, held at Crafton Hills College, turned their online chats with teachers and fellow classmates into in-person meetings.

"It was different; surprising to see what they look like," said Joshua Herrera of Desert Hot Springs.

Some students said they prefer the flexibility of studying outside of the traditional classroom and entering a virtual one instead.

"It was really difficult at times, but it also taught me to push myself," said Shannon Saunders of Desert Hot Springs.

Five years ago, the online academy had a graduating class of seven students. However, for the class of 2012, 554 students will graduate across the state.

"It's exciting to see the growth. I think parents are excited about the program because of budget cuts going on in local schools," said Victoria Nelson, the CAVA high school academic administrator.

CAVA students come from a variety of backgrounds -- accelerated learners, students of military families, athletes and others with special needs.

"Because we have so much adaptability, we can really meet the needs of the individuals," said Nelson.

The academy calls it a paradigm shift in education with a graduation full of hellos and goodbyes.

"Really cool to actually meet them. It was amazing, the whole experience," said Saunders.