Graduates wear blankets during Connections Alaska Homeschool Program’s 2021 graduation on Thursday, May 20, 2021 at Soldotna High School in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Graduates wear blankets during Connections Alaska Homeschool Program’s 2021 graduation on Thursday, May 20, 2021 at Soldotna High School in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

‘Whatever you’re going to do, give it 1,250%’

Connections graduates 99

Blustery wind and occasional showers didn’t dampen the excitement amid attendees of Connections Alaska Homeschool Program’s 2021 graduation ceremony on Thursday, where 48 graduates were honored.

In all, 99 students graduated from Connections this year. As graduates held onto their caps to keep them from blowing away, family and friends scuttled back and forth between their lawn chairs and their graduates bearing blankets to shield them from the wind.

The ceremony capped a year that saw many families at Kenai Peninsula Borough School District schools migrate from brick-and-mortar schools to Connections. Enrollment in Connections surged during the 2020-2021 academic year, duing which many KPBSD schools switch between operating remotely and operating in person depending on the rate of COVID-19 transmission in the community. Connections Homeschool Principal Rich Bartolowits said Thursday that during a normal year, the program’s total enrollment is around 800 or 900 students. This year the program had about 1,800 to 1,900.

Bartolowits said that graduation for Connections students is always an interesting experience because in many cases he hasn’t met the students in person. That was even truer this year. One graduation tradition for Connections students is to have parents, rather than teachers or administrators, present graduates with their diplomas. While graduates lined up on the left side of the stage, their parents lined up on the right side, joining them onstage once their name had been called.

“Home-schooling is all about providing what students need, wherever they are on their path,” Bartolowits said.

Graduate Whitney Owens, who asked to speak before receiving her diploma, thanked her parents for their support during her academic journey and for allowing her to develop an independent mind while growing up.

“Throughout my entire childhood to now, my parents allowed my brother and I to make our own decisions,” Owens said. “My parents always gave us knowledgeable advice and it was up to us to put their wisdom to use in our own journeys through life … They are the reason I am standing here today, with no fear of what may come in my walk through life.”

Valedictorian Isaiah Smardo also spoke during the ceremony and offered advice to the graduating class that included, among other things, to avoid taking out student loans if they are getting a degree in social or political science and to give everything their best effort.

“Whatever you’re going to do, give it 1,250%,” Smardo said.

Three connections valedictorians walked on Thursday, including McKayla Meester, Isaiah Smardo, Kristofor St. Luise.

Also honored during the ceremony was graduate Abby Dial, who was presented with a Mae Ciechanski Scholarship for $1,000. Dial, who also works at the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, plans to attend Northwest Nazarene University in the fall, where she will study political science and international relations.

Connections’ graduation ceremony can be viewed on their Facebook page.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Isaiah Smardo said graduates should avoid taking out student loans if they are planning to major in political or social science.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

Graduate Whitney Owens speaks during the 2021 Connections Alaska Homeschool Program graduation ceremony Thursday, May 20, 2021, at Soldotna High School. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Graduate Whitney Owens speaks during the 2021 Connections Alaska Homeschool Program graduation ceremony Thursday, May 20, 2021, at Soldotna High School. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Graduates throw graduation caps at Connections Alaska Homeschool Program’s 2021 graduation ceremony on Thursday, May 20, 2021 at Soldotna High School in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Graduates throw graduation caps at Connections Alaska Homeschool Program’s 2021 graduation ceremony on Thursday, May 20, 2021 at Soldotna High School in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

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