The class of 2019 from River City Academy in Soldotna may be small, but ask any of the dozen graduates about their schooling and they’ll respond that less is more.
The graduating class of 12 from River City Academy turned their tassels to the right and received their diplomas in a ceremony Tuesday evening at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, opening the next chapter of their lives.
With such a small, but close-knit, graduating class, the amount of personal face time spent with teachers and mentors is much greater than the typical high school experience, and that is one of the biggest advantages that graduates said attracted them to the school to begin with.
“There’s just such a sense of community and a personalized way to learn,” said salutatorian Kylin Welch.
Welch joined valedictorian Steven Hunter Smith as leaders of the class of 2019, sporting the top two highest grade point averages among their peers.
Smith was revealed during the ceremony to be a UA Scholar recipient. The UA Scholars program is a $12,000 scholarship from the University of Alaska school system that is awarded to students in the top 10% of their class.
Smith acknowledged that the low student numbers of River City Academy helped shape him to be the person he is, explaining the extra personal attention he got from teachers at the school propelled him to higher learning and the relationships he forged over the years with his fellow peers.
“We all pretty much grew up together since seventh grade,” Smith said. “For the most part, we’ve stayed together.”
Smith isn’t the first of his family to represent his school as valedictorian — older sister Kaylee Smith beat him to the punch — and plans to study mechanical engineering at UAA, Smith said
“I believe with hard work and dedication, anything can be achieved,” he said.
Welch has combined classes at Soldotna High School and Kenai Peninsula College with his classes at River City Academy to earn his diploma, and said he plans to study for a general business degree before deciding what he really wants to do with it.
Welch echoed the emotions of Smith when asked how it feels to be finished with school and ready to take on the world.
“It’s pretty unbelievable,” Welch said. “I didn’t expect this day to come so fast.”
The first speaker of the ceremony, guest speaker Deanne Pearson, made her presence known with an intriguing speech about the class of 2019. Pearson, a math teacher at the school, included an amusing array of mathematical methods and literary examples to explain what the class of 2019 meant to her and the community, and added several impactful quotes that she hoped would inspire the dozen students.
“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world,” read one such quote.
At the end of her address, Pearson yielded the podium to a number of senior class speakers, with seven of the 12 making relatively short concessions to what attending River City Academy has meant to them.
“It’s really nice to go to class and be able to tell your teacher like, ‘Oh, you wouldn’t believe what I learned today’,” said Athalia Beth Quiner, one of the graduates.
The greater personal attention of the smaller class size also helped graduate Donavan Stocks, who joined several of his classmates Tuesday in making an impromptu speech at the lectern. Stocks said the four years he spent at River City Academy helped connect him to the right people, who could help him figure out what he wants to do in life.
“Honestly I never thought I’d get here right now,” Stocks said. “I went through a lot of rough times and worked through that last little bit of (few weeks) to finish it.”
Stocks said for now, he plans to head south to the Lower 48 to find opportunities as a welder. In his brief speech he thanked the people in his life who supported him throughout his high school years. Fellow graduates Kaylin Morrell, Timothy Opheim, Keeley Withrow, Maria Maes and Smith and Welch gave equally heartfelt speeches.
“Just wing it,” Stocks responded when asked how he sees his way of life. “I try to do the best to do as much as I can.”
The ceremony Tuesday also paid tribute to a respected teacher, Carol Hutto, a River City science teacher who passed away in June 2017. The entrance table that held bright, silver balloons in the shape of the numbers 2019, also featured a photo and remembrance card for Hutto.