Perseverance, commitment lead graduates down 'Alternative' path

Posted: Monday, May 22, 2000

High school graduation is a significant achievement for anyone. It is a time to look back and look ahead, a time to evaluate and assess.

And while perseverance and commitment are a necessary part of any high schoolers journey to graduation, these are, perhaps, attributes that mean a little more to the 25 students who received diplomas Friday night from Kenai Alternative High School.

Rebekah Langford, one of three graduates who addressed their classmates, friends and family gathered in the school gymnasium for the emotional, energetic ceremony, spoke of her personal struggle with adversity.

She said she never thought she'd learn anything in high school and urged her underclassmen friends to stay in school, learn from their mistakes and graduate -- something she credited the support of her mother for helping her to do.

"I want to thank my mom for staying strong through all the crap I put her through," Langford said through tears. "She never gave up on me -- even when I gave up on myself."

Heather Holzheimer also gave a brief but emotional appeal for perseverance in her address, while Stephanie Dempsey acknowledged the support of her family and friends in helping her get to graduation day.

Jerry Wilson, a Central Penin-sula Counseling Services staffer who works as a school-based specialist/counselor at the alternative school, said the significance of the day could not be overemphasized.

"For a lot of these students, there's an idea in the community that they are throw-away kids. When they stand up there with their diploma, it's a sign of success. What they've done is take stock of their lives and determined to make a change, then followed through on that commitment to the point of accomplishment," he said. "And that's something that's difficult for any of us to do, let alone a teen with several strikes against him already."

Kenai Alternative High School opened its doors in 1990 as a second-chance opportunity for students who were unable to be successful in the mainstream school system. Students with discipline or attendance problems, or teen parents unable to meet the more rigidly structured requirements of traditional schools often find their way to the alternative school.

For some, it is a last best chance to succeed, so graduating is a significant step -- for everyone involved.

"They've all had hurdles to overcome and they've done that," said Phyllis Halstead, secretary-tutor at the school. "And when they receive their diploma, I don't know if it's more important to the student, the parent or the staff."

In his keynote address to the graduates, Principal Dennis Dunn spoke of Kenai Alternative as a school of reclamation and redirection. And though all 25 grads have their own success stories, perhaps none better exemplifies the mission of the school than that of David Hernandez, the first graduate in the school's history to have attended all four years.

Attendance and behavior problems caused him to leave Kenai Central High School as a freshman failing all his courses. Four years later, he was one of two alternative school grads to be awarded a full four-year scholarship to the University of Alaska.

"(Four years ago) I never thought I'd go to college," he said. "It feels great. It's exciting."

He was equally happy for his classmates.

"There's a bunch here who didn't expect to graduate (either)," he said. "To see kids do it who didn't think they could, that's good."

He credited Dunn and Halstead with fostering an atmosphere of family at the school that helped all of the class of 2000 become "better equipped to be successful."

Halstead said that's what the alternative school is all about.

"It's not just about academics. We deal with the whole kid," she said. "A lot of them are living independently or in need of counseling. Anyone who needs help, we try and help them figure it out."

Wilson said Hernandez's success exemplifies that approach.

"David's a guy who tries to set an example. He's really aware of the influence he has on other students," he said. "He has a great sense of humor and always has a good word for anyone who's down. He reflects a pride in himself and his school."

Likewise Darcy Gourley, the other recipient of a four-year University of Alaska scholarship. The single mother enrolled in the alternative school's summer program last year, then followed through with a successful senior year.

"Darcy's pretty impressive. Here she is, a teen-age single mother, trying to raise a child and be a student at the same time. She has a lot of support, but when you get right down to it, it's her doing it," Wilson said. "It takes tremendous commitment."

Which is something all 25 graduates can be proud of, according to Principal Dunn.

"We're here to celebrate a truly special moment," he said in his keynote address. "I'm amazed, but not surprised. Take it in. It's been a long time coming."

He told the graduates to remember the lessons they learned as they overcame obstacles along the road to graduation.

"Don't get lost in the tough times. See challenges as opportunities for growth, because you always have a choice," he said. "Do not underestimate yourselves. And don't stop thinking about tomorrow."

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