Photos by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion
                                Graduate and valedictorian Katherine Stoll walks with her family to receive her diploma during the Connections Homeschool Class of 2020 graduation at Soldotna Elementary School in Soldotn on May 21.

Photos by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion Graduate and valedictorian Katherine Stoll walks with her family to receive her diploma during the Connections Homeschool Class of 2020 graduation at Soldotna Elementary School in Soldotn on May 21.

Making one last connection

Connections home-school students celebrate graduation together, at a distance

The Connections Homeschool Program was unable to hold a traditional graduation ceremony for their graduating class of 2020 due to the social distancing mandates put in place by the state, but Thursday’s commencement was still something special.

“The ceremony was a little strange, but they did pretty freaking well, everything considered,” graduate Gracie Matthews told the Clarion after the ceremony.

The ceremony was held in the parking lot of Soldotna Elementary School on Thursday afternoon, where about 30 of the Connections seniors gathered in their cars with their friends and family. As Principal Rich Bartolowits announced the name of each graduate, they left their cars one by one and came to the stage with their parents or close family, grabbed their diploma off the table and took a photo in front of a decorated banner before heading back to their vehicles. Bartolowits spoke briefly about each student after announcing their names, mentioning their hobbies, achievements, passions and post-high school plans.

The ceremony was broadcast on local radio station KDLL, and the sound of dozens of honking cars replaced the traditional applause after the names of each graduate were announced.

Connections Homeschool Program had seven valedictorians this year: Tyler Neill, Karena Brown, William Dambacher, Christopher Jackson, Rachel Spence, Nathaniel St. Luise and Katherine Stoll.

The valedictorian speech was given by Neill, who recorded his speech ahead of the graduation ceremony and uploaded it to YouTube.

In his speech, Neill tells his fellow graduates to stay strong in the face of uncertainty, and reminds them that while their home-school experience has made them better equipped for this era of social distancing, it has also prepared them for entering the real world.

“Although we should hope for a brighter future, I believe this pandemic will make each of us stronger individuals, ones that the next generation will look back on in awe,” Neill said. “Besides, as future parents and grandparents, we will have the ultimate ‘back in my day’ stories to tell.”

When schools across Alaska canceled in-person classes for the remainder of the spring semester, many students struggled to adjust to all of the emergency remote learning that was suddenly forced upon them.

For the graduates of the Connections Homeschool Program’s class of 2020, however, the concept of doing their schoolwork from home and on the computer wasn’t exactly uncharted territory.

Patience Kruse said that the switch to emergency remote learning actually allowed her more time to complete her assignments, and as someone who is already pretty self-motivated, getting things done that way was mostly a breeze.

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted Kruse’s job a lot more than it did her education. Kruse had been working at a local nail salon, but was recently laid off when businesses of that kind were forced to close up shop. This gave her even more free time to complete her schoolwork, however, and Kruse said that she was done with everything by the end of April.

Kruse had attended brick-and-mortar schools around the district until her senior year, when she decided to finish up her academics with the Connections Homeschool Program due to an unexpected family emergency. Her grandma suffered a heart attack last year, and Kruse opted for home school so that she could help with her grandma’s recovery.

“She’s taken care of me my entire life with my uncle, so I just wanted to be with her more,” Kruse said. “Connections gave me the opportunity to work and do school while having much more time with my family, and that really means a lot to me.”

Kruse is also graduating a year early thanks to the flexibility of home schooling, and her grandma was able to attend the ceremony in good health and walk hand-in-hand with Kruse to receive her diploma.

Denali Jackson and Annika Castenholz said that while their academic routine didn’t change much because of COVID-19, not being able to socialize with each other was tough.

“That was huge, to really be stuck at home,” Castenholz said. “There’s that whole idea that, you know, home-schoolers stay at home, but then we really had to stay at home. It was difficult.”

Virginia “Ginni” Orth said that many of the Connections students, herself included, were involved with sports or music programs at other schools around the district. So when those activities were canceled, the Connections students missed out as well.

Orth played the flute in the music program at Kenai Central High School, and she was disappointed that she missed out on two competitions as well as their spring concert.

When Orth received her high school diploma on Thursday, she was already a college graduate. Taking advantage of the district’s Jumpstart program, she was able to take college classes at Kenai Peninsula College at a discounted rate, and completed enough classes to earn her associate degree last week. Next semester Orth plans on returning to KPC to obtain her bachelor’s degree, with the ultimate goal of being a nurse.

When asked what advice they had for the class of 2021, the Connections students emphasized balancing hard work with having fun.

“Do a lot,” Jackson said. “Hang out with your friends a lot, like, to the point where it gets annoying.”

“Hopefully you guys don’t have to wear masks,” Matthews said.

A recording of the ceremony is available on the Connections Homeschool Facebook page.

Graduate Jonathan Ham walks with his family back to his car after receiving his diploma during the Connections Homeschool Class of 2020 graduation at Soldotna Elementary School.

Graduate Jonathan Ham walks with his family back to his car after receiving his diploma during the Connections Homeschool Class of 2020 graduation at Soldotna Elementary School.

Estrella Slats hugs her dad, Don, after receiving her diploma during the Connections Homeschool Class of 2020 graduation.

Estrella Slats hugs her dad, Don, after receiving her diploma during the Connections Homeschool Class of 2020 graduation.

Denali Jackson receives her diploma from her mom, Leah, during the Connections Homeschool Class of 2020 graduation at Soldotna Elementary School in Soldotna, Alaska on May 21, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Denali Jackson receives her diploma from her mom, Leah, during the Connections Homeschool Class of 2020 graduation at Soldotna Elementary School in Soldotna, Alaska on May 21, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Alexis Kreger takes a bouquet of flowers from her dad, Jesse, during the Connections Homeschool Class of 2020 graduation at Soldotna Elementary School in Soldotna, Alaska on May 21, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Alexis Kreger takes a bouquet of flowers from her dad, Jesse, during the Connections Homeschool Class of 2020 graduation at Soldotna Elementary School in Soldotna, Alaska on May 21, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Graduate Virginia Orth walks back to her car with her parents, April and David Orth, after receiving her diploma during the Connections Homeschool Class of 2020 graduation at Soldotna Elementary School in Soldotna, Alaska on May 21, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Graduate Virginia Orth walks back to her car with her parents, April and David Orth, after receiving her diploma during the Connections Homeschool Class of 2020 graduation at Soldotna Elementary School in Soldotna, Alaska on May 21, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

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