‘I can breathe now’: How Night School helped these Anchorage students reach graduation day

Five students said unique circumstances made traditional classrooms challenging. Night School gave them a path to a diploma.

High school students began trickling into an East Anchorage classroom at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday in early May. For most in the district, the school day was long over. But for a handful, the most productive hours of the week were just starting.

Some grabbed snacks that were set out for them. Most wore headphones and wasted little time in getting to work, logging on to a computer or writing on paper handouts, with minimal socializing. Some focused on the final assignments in their homestretch to graduation day.

“You can do it, Bobbi,” Debbie Graves said to one of her Night School students as she circulated to track progress and offer help.

Night School is one of several alternative programs housed at Benny Benson Alternative High School, a school with a mission to help students who are behind on credits and students who struggle in typical high school settings. The school also offers programs for pregnant and parenting teens and for self-directed learning. Night School combines counseling services and in-person learning with a work-at-your-own-pace format to give students a path to a diploma who might otherwise drop out, its organizers say. Students take classes online and through packets of reading and worksheets that they work on independently and in class from 6-8 p.m. Tuesdays.

Beyond the classroom, Graves also frequently communicates with students by text message to keep them on track. Without Night School, she suspects, some would ultimately get a GED. Others might forgo a diploma altogether.

“Because we have that one-on-one connection with them, we can find exactly what they need,” she said.

Night School students have various reasons for attending, Graves said, but many fall into one of three categories: Some have children, but day care needs make daily daytime attendance impossible. Students are allowed to bring their children to Night School, although it doesn’t offer day care.

Others experience mental health challenges, and for them, a gradual approach is the best path to graduation. Many need flexibility because of full-time employment.


“They work a lot, and this is the program that enables them to continue their education,” said Assistant Principal Karen Andrews. “But they’re not working just to have pocket money. They’re working to support their families.”

Another common thread is woven into their stories:

“COVID really just knocked a lot of kids. They lost a year, sometimes two, of their time in school,” Andrews said.

Night School offered them a way back.

The school said 19 of Benny Benson’s 118 graduates are from its Night School program. That’s the largest number in several years, according to Andrews.

Graves, who also teaches in Benny Benson’s daytime program, said she took on the extra assignment because she had a vision for the program and sees the existing need. Some students benefit from a path to a diploma that honors the other difficulties they confront in life.

“We just try to work with them in every way that we can to help them be successful,” she said.

Here are four Night School students’ stories:


Upon arrival at the classroom last week, Shyann Wilshusen’s first stop was the inbox on Graves’ desk. There she placed a thick handful of handwritten English packets. Night School, which she attended for two years, let her bring home lots of assignments and turn them in as her schedule allowed. She tended to earn points in big chunks.

“I work seven days a week. I have two jobs,” she said.

Wilshusen, 20, works as a pharmacy technician-in-training, and also at Subway, taking shifts at various locations in Anchorage and Girdwood. She lives with her mother.

“Alaska’s a high-cost-living state and it’s hard to get by just on one person’s paycheck,” she said.


Wilshusen said she first enrolled in Benny Benson’s daytime program as a freshman. “I didn’t make a lot of great choices as a kid,” she said. The pandemic compounded her difficulties because of its remote format.

“COVID hit and I stopped going to school,” she said.

Night School provided her a path back to getting a diploma that she felt confident she could accomplish. “The teachers here are phenomenal,” she said. “They work with you when you need the help.”

Wilshusen said she often completed schoolwork in the quiet moments at her jobs, motivated in part by the doubts she perceived from others. She said she’s not yet sure what comes next. “I’m still undecided,” she said. “It still feels a little too fresh, a little too real.”

Before the Benny Benson graduation ceremony, Wilshusen said, she didn’t need the event to feel proud of herself. But she wanted to attend for her mom, who planned a big party to celebrate. Wilshusen said she’s the only one in her immediate family to graduate.

“It feels like a big responsibility, a lot of pressure,” she said.


A week later at Benny Benson’s graduation, because names were announced alphabetically, she was the last to cross the stage.

Diploma in hand, she said, “it’s finally here.”


The pandemic-changed educational landscape proved hard to navigate for Chieng Dong, 19. As an East High student, he recalled repeatedly expecting a return to in-person classes in ninth grade, then for most of 10th grade.

“It was mostly confusing, just the work. And you don’t have a teacher right there telling you, teaching you how to do it,” he said.

Falling behind led to a drop in self-confidence.

When in-person school finally returned, Dong rededicated himself to the work of catching up, motivated both internally and by his parents. He started at Night School at the beginning of this school year, which gives him the flexibility to work at Arby’s.


In the Benny Benson classroom, Dong wore headphones and quietly focused on his work, with occasional check-ins from Graves. “She tries to help you out, see what you need to do and try to help you get it done,” Dong said.

Without Night School, he’s not sure what he would’ve done, he said.

He’s planning to visit family in Houston, Texas, after graduation, and might consider relocating there. Dong said he’s not interested in attending the commencement ceremony, though he’s looking forward to having a diploma in his hands.

“I just want to get it and be done,” he said.


Tuesdays are the longest day of the week for Bobbi Cox. She starts early at Olive Garden, where she works six days a week. Then she heads straight to Night School.

On a recent evening, she showed up at Benny Benson in her restaurant uniform, sat down next to her boyfriend — also a Night School student — and got to work. She said earning enough credits to graduate in time for the ceremony, which was a week away, seemed iffy, but she remained upbeat.

“I really gotta buckle down until the end of school, but I’m open to coming back for a couple of weeks next year if I don’t make it,” said Cox, 19.

Cox said she has struggled in traditional classrooms since she was younger. “I’m a very independent person. I was raised independently. I just didn’t like the whole classroom dynamic,” she said.


There were other steep challenges that came with providing for herself after she left home at age 16.

Night School allowed Cox to stay in school while she works at Olive Garden. There, she’s a line cook, a delivery specialist, does cold-item food prep and more, she said. She and her boyfriend, Joe Hall, are on their own now. Sometimes they do schoolwork at the same time, late at night, encouraging each other. They have a puppy named Ranger, big and crazy, she said.

She’s considering culinary and trade schools after graduation, whenever that happens. Night School, and her teacher Graves’ understanding, has been an important element in building a life that makes her happy, she said. “I’m still at the beginning of it. I haven’t even reached my 20s yet, but I like the path that I’m going down,” Cox said.

Attending the graduation ceremony isn’t as important as finally feeling that diploma in her hands, she said. For that, she’ll have to wait a few more months. Cox finished the semester one credit shy of what she needed to graduate. She plans to complete her coursework this summer and turn it in as soon as the next school year begins, she said.

“I’m going to feel a couple tons of weight fall off my shoulders,” she said. “Just, ugh, I can breathe now.”


Josephine “J.J.” Crowther, 17, has been working in kitchens for nearly three years, she said. Now she works full time as a line cook at Glacier Brewhouse. It’s a busy job and she loves it.

“I don’t want to brag, but I’m pretty good at what I do, especially for my age,” she said.

On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, her days off, she worked on her Night School coursework. Crowther said she had gone to traditional school, but it didn’t seem to suit how she learned. Anxiety contributed to her challenges. Crowther said the consequences in a traditional-format school seemed like punishment.

Night School works differently. Graves, the teacher, said one important component is that when coursework is only partially completed the student doesn’t have to retake the class from the beginning the following year.

“They’re able to suspend their education and then come back and pick it up where they left off,” Graves said.

Crowther completed a combination of online classes, written packets and Tuesday evening classes to catch up through Night School. Cari Olsen-Crowther, Crowther’s mother, said the program empowered the teen’s sense of independence.

“It gives her that flexibility that she needs, with how her brain chemistry is working right now, to get school done,” said Olsen-Crowther. “I don’t think she would’ve graduated if it hadn’t been for Benny Benson and the Night School program.”

Crowther enrolled at the start of this school year and recently attended Benny Benson’s small prom. She said Graves helped her through a lot and kept her on task. “She kept texting me and kept getting on me,” Crowther said.

After graduation, she’s looking into mechanic apprenticeship programs and might want to one day relocate out of state for a pilot training academy. She’s saving for the upfront costs. Her dream, since childhood, is to fly planes.

On a recent Tuesday night, Crowther worked on a writing assignment, her final task of high school.

“Now I’m so close. Like so close,” Crowther said. “They’ve helped me so much.”

The following week, she nervously waited in the front row of the West High School auditorium during the graduation ceremony, hoping she wouldn’t trip on the way to the stage. Afterward, diploma in hand, she said she was surprised at how special the moment felt.

“I’m really proud and I’m really happy,” she said.

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Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.