The big story in Bethel this week is a visit from an NBA All-Star. High school students will go to classes Friday under the supervision of celebrity principal James Harden, star of the Houston Rockets -- their reward for winning a national college-preparatory contest, and their persistence in pursuing the prize even after the contest had been won.
Kids have been buzzing and tweeting about the visit for weeks. Harden, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound guard with basketball's most famous beard, will spend the morning at Bethel Regional High School, a place where basketball rules.
Bethel Regional High School is also a place that was called a dropout factory in a widely reported 2007 statistical analysis by Johns Hopkins University. The label was given to schools where 60 percent or fewer students make it to their senior year, and hearing it applied to Bethel stung, remembers the woman who was a first-year principal when the report came out.
"Ouch," Janelle Vanasse, who is still the principal, recalled this week. "I remember I was just like, wow, how is this research being done? What is the purpose of naming these schools?"
Six years later, Vanasse said, Bethel's four-year graduation rate is around 65 percent. Its five-year graduation rate -- a statistic the state recently began to track, showing what percentage of kids graduate after five years of high school -- is more than 70 percent.
In its effort to improve graduation rates, the school put an emphasis on pushing students to set goals beyond high school. And so when the non-profit Get Schooled organization -- whose partners include MTV -- held a 14-week national Future Forward Challenge contest early this year to see which school could get the most students to participate in college preparatory tasks, including filling out applications for student aid, Bethel's student body was primed for the task.
Bethel not only won the contest, it dominated. More than 60 percent of the Class of 2013 completed financial aid applications, compared to the national average of 40 percent, according to Get Schooled. And more than 80 percent applied to colleges or other post-secondary education programs, and more than half are in college this fall, said Vanasse, an educator in Bethel for 18 years.
This week, the one-time dropout factory has been basking in its own glow. On Thursday, there was a visit from Taco Bell executives and an assembly featuring DJ Dallas Green. On Friday, Harden will temporarily and symbolically replace Vanasse as principal.
"Everybody is excited to get to meet an NBA player," said sophomore Ethan Forbes, who was part of the student government-led effort to get kids to participate in the contest. "You can tell everyone's excited about it."
But there's more. The students learned Thursday afternoon that another celebrity will join Harden in Bethel -- rapper Kendrick Lamar, who they virtually know already.
'Every student with a goal...'
The Future Forward Challenge ran from January to March, and Bethel students used the power of Twitter, and persistence, to triumph.
The contest challenged students to participate in Twitter town halls with college admission experts, to play educational-themed games and to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
"We said, 'We'll give it a shot,' '' said Ethan Blevins, another sophomore involved in student government. "Once we saw we were doing very well in the first week, we just took it on."
Standings were updated frequently online, so Bethel students were able to see right away that they were among the leaders. Their enthusiasm increased as they pulled away from the other schools, about 400 in all; a California academy known for its academics was also among the early leaders.
"It wasn't that difficult," junior Conrad McCormick said. "It just took a lot of persistence and repetition. We went to every single class. With the news of a celebrity visitor, people became more and more willing to participate in these challenges."
Even without the lure of a celebrity visitor, many Bethel students have bought into the idea of education after high school.
After being branded a dropout factory, "our vision became: every student with a goal, and the skills, confidence and knowledge to pursue it," Vanasse said. "We've doubled the number of kids that are taking chemistry and upper-level math and more challenging things."
Key to that mission is making post-secondary education an attainable option for a teenager in rural Alaska, she said.
"Most of our kids don't have a lot of access to or experience with information on post-secondary education," Vanasse said. "Most of those kids are first-generation (college students).
"Take our geographical distance, and it's even more challenging. It's not like they are driving past UAA every day. Their parents put them on a plane and say, 'Good luck on the other end.' "
Vanasse said the high school got a big boost from the Alaska Commission on Post-Secondary Education, which used a federal grant to place college-and-career guides at a handful of schools, including Bethel. The program creates a position for a recent college graduate who either attended the school or a school nearby, and who can counsel students as a near-peer.
Nathaniel Betz, a 2005 graduate of the village school in Atmautluk and a recent graduate of Maine's Colby College, has held that position in Bethel for three years, Vanasse said.
"He filled that missing gap," she said. "He does everything from (working) the junior high kids by just giving them exposure to what careers are out there, to the seniors by helping them be able to navigate the very difficult paperwork involved to get where you want to go."
'A skype session? Really?!?
To the victors go the spoils, although for awhile it looked like maybe Bethel's prize would be compromised by logistics.
In recent years, Get Schooled has sent Nicki Minaj to Chicago and Lamar to Rhode Island, but the prospect of sending a star to Bush Alaska initially jeopardized Bethel's reward.
Instead of sending a celebrity to such a far-away, isolated place, Get Schooled presented a compromise: A Skype session with Lamar.
The Skype visit happened in May and it was great, Forbes and other students said. "When a student asked him about how he had straight-As through high school, he said that gave him a positive spin on life," Forbes said.
But a virtual visit isn't the same as a real visit, and the Bethel kids wanted the prize they earned. So they returned to Twitter to call attention to the injustice. Using the hashmark #gettrolled, they voiced their disappointment with a barrage of tweets like this:
REALLY @getschooled after all the hard work and this is how you do us? A skype session? Really?!? You upset a lot of kids today. #gettrolled
Get Schooled responded with an announcement earlier this month that Harden, an NBA all-star, would spend half a day this week as Bethel's celebrity principal. The choice is a great one for a place that lives and breathes basketball for much of the year.
Harden was supposed to visit Thursday, but late Wednesday the school got word that because of a scheduling conflict, Harden's trip would be postponed by one day -- and on Thursday students learned that Lamar, set to perform at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer Thursday night, will join him.
In anticipation of meeting Harden, kids are wearing bushy fake beards and making Beard2Bethel posters. Forbes says he can't think of a more famous person to visit the town.
"Other than rumors, I can't really think of one," he said.
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG