Family and flexibility, always hallmarks of Kenai Alternative High School, came together to help the school pull off a successful graduation Monday amid a pandemic.
When students were dismissed for spring break March 5, there was no way of knowing they would not be back in their classrooms with their friends and teachers for the rest of the school year.
Kenai Alt is a school with flexible scheduling for students who struggle in a traditional high school environment. Loren Reese, principal, said that meant students and staff were able to handle the sudden disruption caused by the threat of the new coronavirus.
“The nature of an alternative school is that we’re flexible and roll with it,” said Reese, who has been principal for 11 years. “The staff have all done a great job, and the kids have as well.”
The same went for Monday’s graduation ceremony. Kenai Alt had 21 graduates this year, with some unable to make the ceremony because of personal reasons or because they are already enrolled in the armed forces.
Each graduate got two cars of well-wishers. The cars rolled up to the front door of the school on Bluff Street where Reese and about 10 staff members waited to take pictures and dole out a diploma along with soda, M&M’s (for the school motto of maturity and motivate), Reese’s (for the principal), a yearbook, a graduation program, a Straight Outta Quarantine Class of 2020 sticker and a yellow rose.
Graduates then signed a Class of 2020 ceiling tile that will be installed in the school office, with each signer keeping their pen to lessen the threat of spreading the virus.
The yellow rose, as well as all the sweets distributed, were intended to show the bond of family that prevails at KAHS. So did the group of adults cheering for the students across the street on the lawn of Kenai United Methodist Church. The adults could not be on school property due to limits on group sizes.
Members of different households can engage in outdoor activity as long as the group does not exceed 20 people, due to state mandates.
Vickie Roney, a teacher at Kenai Alt since 1998, said the students are assigned to give the rose to someone who helped the graduate reach this moment in their life. Before the ceremony, Roney proudly noted she had six roses so far.
The adults across the street were from a group that serves students and staff breakfast every morning at the school. The group includes Soldotna United Methodist Church, Our Lady of the Angels Catholic Church, Scott Earsley and the Halstead family.
Roney said eating is a very important part of the school’s culture. She said former principal Dennis Dunn said breaking bread was the school’s way of getting together and bonding as family.
“What makes our school different is the feeling of family,” Roney said.
On a 23-minute YouTube video available on the Kenai Alternative High School Facebook page, Reese said Kenai Alt celebrated its 30th graduating class and also the 25th year of the morning meal program.
Graduating students also noted the feeling of family.
Kenai Alt traditionally doesn’t have a guest speaker at graduation, turning to a few students instead. This year, the honors went to Victor Evan Jr. and Jenna Goode, who spoke via YouTube.
Evan Jr. came to Kenai Alt two years ago when he moved from Kalskag on the Kuskokwim River with his parents, Jaelene and Victor Sr.
Evan Jr. said he struggled with his classes, but wanted a diploma.
“I started making new friends and found out quickly that students are nice to each other,” Evan Jr. said in the YouTube video. “We have all gone through tough times in our short time here on earth.
“Students seem to have an understanding of what many of us have gone through. Many of these friendships I will have for years to come.”
In an interview at the ceremony, Evan Jr. said finishing his work through remote education was challenging, but the staff helped him through it. Evan Jr., who wants to become an airplane mechanic, saw the glass as half full when it came to the graduation.
“It’s better than nothing,” said Evan Jr., the Masonic Outstanding Student Award winner for Kenai Alt. “It’s better than not having a graduation. I still got to graduate and see all my teachers and friends.”
Goode was at Kenai Central High School when epileptic seizures started disrupting her education.
“I still remember the first day when principal Reese, who remembered every kid’s name, invited us all to go have breakfast,” Goode said in the YouTube video. “I went into the kitchen and was greeted with the smell of a home-cooked meal.”
It’s those special touches Goode will remember about her school.
“To all the returning students of the Alt next year, you know you are the very best school on the Kenai,” she said.
Elsie Daniels, a UA Scholars Award winner, said at Monday’s ceremony she was looking for something different after spending her first three years at Kenai Central. She found it in the flexibility and family of KAHS.
The small school size allowed her to meet everyone and make friends quickly.
The flexibility allowed her to avoid remote emergency learning.
“I finished up in September so I didn’t have to deal with all this connecting-to-school stuff,” she said. “It’s been nice.”
She also had no problems with the ceremony.
“I like it,” Daniels said. “It’s quick and easy. Get in and get out. It’s fun and definitely unique.”
Reese will lose three staff members this year. Dave Carpenter and Kevin Harding both are retiring after over 20 years with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Harding has 22 years with Kenai Alt, while Carpenter has 13. Patti Lawyer will move to Soldotna High School after five years at Kenai Alt.
In the YouTube video, Reese told students that time will fly, so take time to enjoy little moments. He also suggested frequent calls to parents and old friends.
“Believe me, if we’ve learned anything the last couple months, it’s that this world is so interconnected, and what you do here makes an impact on it,” he said.
He closed with a quote from Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the German American sex therapist and Holocaust survivor: “My favorite animal is the turtle. The reason is that in order for the turtle to move, it has to stick its neck out. There are going to be times in your life when you’re going to have to stick your neck out. There will be challenges and instead of hiding in a shell, you have to go out and meet them.”