We often hear that Anchorage has some of the most diverse schools in America. In fact, East, Bartlett and West are the three most diverse public high schools in the nation, according to a University of Alaska Anchorage researcher.
But what do we know about the students who make up the statistics?
The Anchorage School District and Bartlett High School pointed Alaska Dispatch News toward Yvette Stone's Anatomy and Physiology class, a challenging elective that meets early in the school day on Bartlett's fifth floor. There, 21 of 31 students volunteered to talk to ADN over the past few months about their backgrounds, interests, challenges and some of the moments that have shaped the adults they're becoming.
Taken together, the stories open a window into the world of teens in Anchorage today and their diverse experiences that are more than skin-deep.
Meet the class:
Patrick Smith has one tattoo on each forearm. On his left, a purple ribbon pays tribute to the victims of domestic violence, particularly his mother. She pulled her sons out of a bad situation. "We're pretty much survivors," he said. Patrick, a quiet talker with an easy smile, is built like a football lineman, which he is, standing 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighing 290 pounds. On Patrick's right arm, thick black ink spells out "Rylee," the name he and his girlfriend chose for their daughter, who wasn't yet born when ADN spoke to him. He remembers the day she took a pregnancy test. She cried a little. "We've been trying to help each other as much as we can," he said. As a senior, Patrick has spent hours in parenting classes and has learned some of the important aspects of becoming a father. "You have to care for another human being," he said. "You have the responsibility of being there and always helping and I think it's going to be stressful, but fun." Patrick became a dad a few days later, on Oct. 4. Rylee was born a little more than 8 pounds, 21 inches long and healthy. Life became hectic quickly and he took some time off from school. But he has since returned and said he plans to graduate in the spring and go to UAA.
A drunk driver slammed into a police car driven by Katherine Hughes' dad on Sept. 23, 2011. That day has shaped who Katherine is and who she hopes to become. Katherine, an animated talker who is quick to laugh, tells the story of her dad's crash with a certain pragmatism. "I actually kind of got good at telling the details," she said. She remembers the tubes driven into her dad's body, the television news coverage that her mom wouldn't let her watch, and the surgeries and legal battle that stretched on for years after the crash. While the effects of that September night have stuck with the family, Katherine has stopped wishing that the drunk driver would spend the rest of his life in prison. She forgives him, but she has no patience for anyone who would make a similar decision. "If I find out you were drinking and driving, I won't talk to you," Katherine, a junior, said. "My friends know how much it impacted me and then to do it — like when all of us are offering to help you out — there's no real excuse." She tells them they always have another option. "Call me. Just call me." The impact drunk driving has had on Katherine's life has driven her dreams to enter the medical field. She plans to enlist in the Army after graduation and is hoping for a career in combat medicine. "I definitely want to help people who are trying to make the world better," she said.
Anna Vang was in the sixth grade when her mom died. Her dad passed away a year later. "Everything just went by too fast," she said. Her mom had cancerous tumors that doctors found when Anna was in elementary school. If she got home from school and cars crowded the street, she knew her family had arranged for a shaman to come. On those days she thought, "Oh no, not again." It seemed weekly. The shaman would come to present offerings, sometimes mounting a bench to travel to the spirit world. The family would get a chicken or a pig to sacrifice — whatever the shaman wanted. They bought food to feed those who came to the home. "Hmong people are very religious," said Anna, a junior who now lives with her older sister. Anna has 16 brothers and sisters — some of them step-siblings. The family lives by strict rules. She rarely goes out with friends. Anna said she lost some ties to traditional Hmong religion when she lost her parents. She's considering a career in pediatric medicine. As a junior, Anna does well in school. She balances class work with taking care of her brothers. When her sister and brother-in-law aren't home, Anna is in charge. She's currently teaching her brothers to cook rice. She's also careful how she teaches them. She doesn't scold them with harsh words. Instead she'll just say, "Don't do that next time." While Anna must act like an adult a lot of the time, she still gets scared. When that happens she sometimes seeks comfort by talking to her grandmother's spirit.
Tessa Heckert knows what it's like to be the new kid in school. Her family packed up what they owned in Ohio two years ago and moved to Alaska. Tessa walked into Bartlett as a sophomore and only knew her two sisters, a senior and a freshman. "It was quite terrifying," she said. She eventually started talking to people, making friends and building a new community. Her advice for newcomers? Just reach out to others. "Whether it's just as simple as a smile or saying, 'Hello,' or saying, 'Hey, I'm new here. I don't know where I'm going,'" she said. Now, Tessa has crimson-colored hair and a big smile and often talks in quick sentences punctuated with exclamation points. She feels at home in Anchorage and at Bartlett — a place pretty different from her previous school, which was made up of mostly white students. "I come here and there are just so many different kinds of people," she said. At Bartlett, Tessa, a senior, finds that people embrace their differences and respect each other. "It's like 'Oh my gosh, you're from the Philippines? I've never been there!' That's really cool!" she said. That exposure has changed Tessa. She encourages her friends more in whatever they choose to do, even if their interests stray from her own. It's a trait she hopes to inspire in future generations when she becomes a teacher.
Pather Thao and Jaia Thao
While Pather and Jaia Thao look a lot alike, they're not a matching set. They have the same dark eyes, straight hair and petite builds. They both speak quietly, but quickly and have a lot to say. They're driven and focused straight-A students. However, both want recognition as distinct individuals with different personalities. "She is like the light and I am like the shadow," said Jaia, the more focused, quiet and studious twin. "People always compare us — Who's smarter? Who's taller? Who's prettier?" Still, they have a lot in common. That includes a competitive streak with each other, for grades and for attention from Mom and Dad. "We love being praised by our parents. They're like everything to us," said Pather, the more indecisive, open and outgoing twin. The two also share an understanding of their circumstances. Their parents had tough childhoods and continue to struggle financially. Pather and Jaia moved to the United States from Thailand in 2004. They live in a tight trailer in Anchorage. Their parents work as custodians and tell Pather and Jaia? that when they were young and living in Laos they had to sneak out to go to class, so the girls should feel lucky. And they do. But they also share a fear of failure. "You want to get a better job so you can support your family," Jaia said. "And that's why we're working so hard. But if you fail, you're never going to be better off in the future." Pather and Jaia? also feel pressure to not dishonor their dad, a leader in his Hmong community. To achieve their academic goals, the twins have had to re-imagine some traditional female roles. They've played sports in school, something Hmong girls rarely do and something that their dad worries about, they said. Instead of marrying young and having children, they're both planning for college at UAA. "Even though we have problems, we're not going to let that slow us down," Jaia said
Kasiah Malietufa-Lauofo is trying to make good choices and lead by example for both his siblings and friends. His parents, Samoan and Filipino, are both hardworking and laid back, he said, "but they're also strict at the same time. They always tell me, 'Keep your head in the books.'" Kasiah grew up in Anchorage's Mountain View neighborhood and has seen friends party and turn to drugs. A girl he knew got shot and died. "It was overwhelming," he said. Back home, he knows it's not always easy for his parents. They depend on him to look after his younger siblings. He makes sure that they wake up on time, eat and pitch in with cleaning the house. Kasiah doesn't plan to stop helping his family anytime soon. Kasiah, a senior, plans to go to college next year — the first step to finding a good job so he can ease the financial stress for the people closest to him. "I like seeing my parents smile, or any of my family members in general," he said. "It's nice to see them smile because I know how hard it is for them."
Adrianna Tosi has learned to appreciate her family. She loves her four younger siblings because they can make her laugh in any stressful situation. But she worried about squeezing them all, plus her parents, into one car this summer for a long road trip from Arizona to Alaska. "I thought it was going to be terrible, but it really was a good experience," she said. "We got closer. There were a lot of fun moments." Adrianna credits her parents with teaching her everything from cleaning skills to people skills. They taught her how to confront tough situations. "Without them I wouldn't be who I am," she said. "I wouldn't have what I do." Adrianna, who smiles often, said her friends would describe her as "obnoxious." "I don't like anyone being sad," she said. Adrianna will travel to Arizona for college next year and wants to become a cosmetologist. By doing people's hair and makeup she hopes she can help them feel special. Adrianna, a senior, has mixed feelings about leaving her family to go to college. "I'm definitely going to be lost without them," she said. But she also looks forward to learning how to lean on them a little bit less.
It gets noisy in Mykayla Baran's house when she bickers with her younger teenage sister. Their black Lab can ignore them when they start yelling, but their dad sometimes has to step in and separate the two. Mykayla, a senior, admires how her dad has managed as a single parent. "He's been taking care of us for so long, so he's got it down now," she said. The older she gets, the more she understands about her childhood and her parents' difficult divorce. She remembers that her mom would sometimes disappear for days, weeks or months at a time. "She would come in and out of our lives," Mykayla said. She had to grow up quicker than most kids. She remembers taking care of her sister and the bad situations her mom put them in. But she also remembers that her dad faced the challenges head-on after he got full custody. "He was panicking and stressing and stuff, but he didn't show it." Now, Mykayla thinks about how hard life could have been if her dad hadn't gone to college and gotten a good job — if he hadn't been able to provide for her and her sister. As Mykayla plans for college and handles her relationships, she said she's prepared to remain calm when faced with challenges, just like her dad. "No one will compare with him," she said.
Olivia Lewis has finally given in to years of prodding and started dancing with her mom. Olivia, who describes herself as a quarter Alaska Native, was born in Kotzebue, but she doesn't remember living there. She has split the years since between Oregon, where her dad lives, and Anchorage with her mom. Now a junior, she's working on getting a firmer grasp on what it means to be part Inupiaq ?— a culture that her mom holds onto tightly. Olivia dances the "Seagull" with others in the Anchorage Northern Lights Dancers, a group her mom formed. The motions are simple, she explained. "First it's a soft beat and then it's a hard beat, and that's when the women start singing." Olivia appears calm and confident at school, dressed in a zip-up sweatshirt with the logo of her softball team on it. When she's not at school, she works at Ace Hardware. After high school, Olivia hopes to go to the University of Oregon and major in something in the medical field. It wasn't lost on her that her mom, a woman who she called "strong through everything," has gone back to school twice to work toward her career goals. Apart from the dancing, Olivia's mom has also been trying to get her to eat traditional Native foods, like salmon and muktuk, which she just doesn't like. Olivia imagines one day she'll try to pass on traditions of her own to her children, especially the dancing. "I want to carry that on the best that I can," Olivia said. "Even though I'm only a quarter, I'm still Native."
LaTravius Kingsland-Kennedy learned a hard lesson in eighth grade, when he started to notice girls. "Listen to your mom," cautioned the junior. It was kind of always assumed that LaTravius would play sports. Old photographs show him as a baby holding a miniature basketball. By kindergarten, his mom had signed him up for a team. He was dedicated to improving and for a while he played on teams with the older kids. But then 8th grade came and LaTravius started to go to practice early to talk to girls. He also started dating his first girlfriend. "I was just not focused," he said. LaTravius, with a well-maintained mohawk and frequent smile, punctuated many sentences with "yeahs" before trailing off into a laugh. "I just thought I knew everything," he said. LaTravius stopped trying to get better at basketball. "My attitude was just trash." His attitude would eventually change with age and with some help from his mom. Now, he focuses on football, basketball and school. "Girls come and go," he said. "That's basically what my mom taught me." When he didn't make the all-conference team this year, he was disappointed but he is also using it as a reason to push harder. "I kind of like being the underdog."
You might first recognize Avalon Magdall by her hair. The blonde strands cloud around her head. Sometimes, classmates will just come up and pet her. But she doesn't mind; she loves to talk to people. She gets that from her mom, while she gets her looks from her dad. "So I'll take it," said Avalon, who is half Colombian and half white. Avalon's dad doesn't live in Alaska anymore. Her mom and stepdad have been together for years. They work as waiters at the Village Inn. "They work at the same time, the same day," Avalon said. "Both my parents are pretty charming." They usually wait on the same section of tables and refer to each other as "teammates." Both have spent more than a decade at the restaurant. Avalon remembers staying up late as a child, waiting for her mom to come home from work so they could watch TV together. She knows her mom works hard for her and her sister. Her mom and stepdad both spend long days at the restaurant and Avalon admires her mom for all she has done to support her family, while maintaining a personality that Avalon strives for. She described her mom as warm and inviting. "When you see her you just want to talk to her," she said. Avalon knows her mom is proud of her, too. Avalon, a senior, does gymnastics and track. She takes AP classes, volunteers and hopes to become the first in her immediate family to go to college. She also hopes, she said, "to become more like my mom."
Ryan Trailer has always lived in the same house in Anchorage with his mom, dad and older sister. He's ready to move to somewhere warm. Ryan, a quiet talker with a deep voice, is thinking California for college. The high school junior wants to become a pharmacist. "One day my friend's parents told me about it," he said, "and it sounded cool and you make a lot of money." Ryan's family supports his plans to leave the state and see more of the world. They have also long supported his sports career. Ryan's dad used to coach his basketball and baseball teams. "He always wants me to do the best in sports," Ryan said. "He would go to the gym and help me shoot or dribble." Over the years, some of Ryan's coaches have influenced him the most. They always encouraged him to push himself in everything he did. If Ryan had the chance to play basketball in college, he would probably take it, he said. If not, he'll always remember his high school teams and all the friends he made through sports.
Aanisah Robinson describes herself as an introvert-extrovert. As in, she's both. She's shy at first. It took some time for her to make friends at Bartlett when she moved to Alaska last year. But she also puts herself out there, participating in theater and cheerleading, where she's often out in front. "That's why I like acting and all that and performing, because when I'm on stage or when I'm supposed to do stuff, it's like, 'OK, turn on that exciting person.'" In a military family, she spent seven years living in Japan, a place she learned to appreciate honest, non-judgmental people. The transition to Alaska was difficult, and she worked two jobs last summer to try to save money for a return visit that never happened. Instead, she used the money to buy a car that she shares with her sister. She tried to give a bulk of the money to her dad so he could buy a plane ticket to visit family. He told her to keep it, but she wanted him to know that she cares. Now, Aanisah said she's happiest when working at her fast-food part-time job. She's learning to let go of control and not act older than she needs to be. She knows friendships are important and can last, even though that hasn't always been her experience since her family moved around a lot. She's trying to open up more to her sister. "She's like, 'Why don't you tell me what's going on in your life?'" she said. Lately, though, Aanisah has turned her focus to her future. Though still only a junior, she spends lunch periods in the student resource office planning for college. She had been considering a local university, but her adviser is encouraging a look into something Ivy League. "I'm in the top ten percent of my class rank, but I want to do better."
Sun?ck? Journey Prieto
Sun?ck? "Journey" Prieto has known she wanted to become a neurologist since she read a Stephen King book at age 11. The book mentioned the job, but she didn't know anything about it. "So I looked it up and did all of this research and just fell in love with it," she said. Growing up, her family's shelves burst with books. "Instead of watching TV, we would just read," she said. Journey's parents divorced before she entered kindergarten. Growing up, she split time between their homes. Her mom lived in Tennessee. Her dad lived in Oklahoma, right off the tribal lands of Muscogee Creek. Her grandmother teaches a traditional language class there, but Journey just knows her name, Sun?ck?, and her middle name, Nokus?. What she misses most about Oklahoma are the people. Everyone treated each other like family there. "You'll be so close to someone that they might as well be your aunt or uncle," she said. Journey moved to Anchorage three years ago with her mom, stepdad and siblings. Bartlett has a lot more diversity than her old schools did. In many ways, it has broadened her perspective. After she graduates, Journey plans to attend UCLA or Vanderbilt University. She never really doubts herself, unless she thinks about medical school. "But I know I can get through it if I try," she said. That's Journey's attitude about a lot of things. She gets that from her parents. When she told them she wanted to play sports they said, "OK, that's fine, but you have to be the best at it," recalled the junior. "And so I have the same thing toward school. I'm going to be in school so I'm going to try to be the best at it."
Panulee Lee really likes anime. In some ways, she identifies with her favorite character: Naruto, a cheerful teenage ninja who wants to become the village leader. "He's a really friendly person," she said. Panulee was born in Thailand. She remembers playing in the dirt. She moved to California in 2004 before arriving in Anchorage. At first, she didn't have many friends. She was kind of quiet. "If you talk to me, I'll talk back," she said. "If you don't talk to me, I'll just sit here." Panulee has four brothers and one sister. Her mom takes care of the family and her dad works as a school janitor. The education he got in Thailand didn't really transfer to the United States, she said. Panulee, a senior who typically takes a nap after school, said she works hard to get good grades. In her spare time, she likes to draw and watch anime. Like Naruto, she feels like she can sometimes get overlooked. But not too much by her mom who says she has the most hope that Panulee will succeed. "I guess I do better in school than the others and that kind of motivates me," she said.
Gustavo Henriquez started to do better in school once he knew his older brother would be OK. Gustavo said his brother had a brain tumor. As doctors eradicated it, Gustavo matured. He spent a lot of time with family. "It just made me realize that anything can just happen in an instant and you could just lose it all," he said. Gustavo, a senior, has a hard side part in his dark hair. He speaks both English and Spanish. If he ever pauses while speaking English, it might be because he's thinking in Spanish and needs to switch languages. Gustavo's dad grew up in El Salvador and his mom in Colombia. His parents, whom he described as loving and supportive, have taught him to be proud of his roots. Which he is. They also want him to love whatever career he chooses to pursue. Right now, he works at the movie theater. But he plans to go to college and major in health care management.
Madeleine Sereyko will remember two words when she leaves high school: "Next play." The phrase is something her flag football coach has drilled into the team. "You've just got to keep moving forward and perform and do what you need to do," she said. It doesn't matter if you made a good play or a bad play; you just have to keep going. When Madeleine goes to college, she will miss high school sports and her teammates the most. She'll always remember the trip she took with the basketball team to Florida. She was a nervous freshman with a bunch of seniors whom she didn't know at first. But they all returned to Anchorage feeling like a family. Madeleine's older sister told her that's how it would be. She's the one who encouraged Madeleine to make friends by staying involved in sports in high school. As a junior, Madeleine will do flag football, basketball and track this year. Madeline is a calm talker who laughs often and runs fast. She has nine brothers and sisters. Her house can get a bit crazy, but she likes that there's always something to do. Madeline thinks her coach's phrase is easy to translate to everyday life. "If anything happens, you just have to progress. Leave it be; let it be. You can't do anything about it." Next play.
Neale Sheneman has a talent for academics, especially math and science. As a senior, his grade point average nears the top of his class. He can't explain what exactly drives him. It's not pressure from his parents. He's just really interested in finding out new things. Looking back, though, making friends didn't always come so easy. "I was trying to find that place where I fit in, I guess," he said about his first two years in high school. At his church, other young people repeatedly invited him to hang out. Eventually, he said yes and was able to open up. Now, a group of them regularly go to service and then out to dinner. They're goofy and just fun to be around. "It's been good the last two years," he said. Neale is aiming toward college in Alaska and medical school after that. He has advice for people who are a little like he used to be: Just be yourself. "Because so many people try to be something that they aren't and you won't be happy if you do that."
Isabelle Suh was once an intern for a program that taught English to Anchorage's refugee population. She felt like she could relate to some of their challenges. Though born in Alaska, Isabelle lived in South Korea from age 6 to 13, living in an apartment tower that overlooked many other apartment towers in the country's second largest city. When she moved back with her mom, she had to relearn English. "In middle school I felt like I was different and I felt judged. And I didn't like the classes I was in, because I didn't know what I was doing," she said. Like some of the students she later assisted, she was motivated, and got out of ESL classes in just two years. Now, when her mom texts her in Korean, Isabelle responds in English. As a senior, she thinks about how the little things can make a big impact. Isabelle doesn't go out for fun until her work is done. She would just feel guilty about it. Though a 4.0 GPA might not sound much different from a 3.5, she knows that achieving higher marks can open up many more options. And to her, fashion isn't frivolous. "You can change the way people look at you just by changing what you look like," she said. She's got her mind on college, but misses her internship with the refugee population, a job she said taught her to talk to people and be accepting of their differences. "It changed the way I look at people. I felt like a better person after that."
She might say the words softly, but Bella Mailo's determination is clear. A straight-A student since way back, she was nearly able to graduate high school early. She says she'll become a Marine one day soon, and hopes that will help pay for her further education. "When I have a goal, there's, like, nothing you can do to tell me I can't do it," she said. Bella credits her mother, a woman who worked hard and was strict, but also understanding. She never shied away from conversations other parents might find difficult to address. "I don't think many of my friends' parents talk to them about sex and birth control and all of that, but my mom told me that she wanted me to hear it," she said. So they went to Red Robin and talked over dinner. "She can literally get anything out of me if she feeds me." At the end of most school days, Bella will cook dinner for her dad, who is recovering from a stroke. His heart is failing, she said, and he's no longer eligible for a transplant. He has trouble speaking, so deciding on a menu often becomes a patient game of charades. Bella makes sure he eats healthy food and joins him for movies and walks. "We kind of spend as much family time as we can," she said. This is not the first time her family has dealt with a medical crisis. When Bella was three, her younger brother died of a rare form of leukemia. She has few memories of that time. But she does remember the tears. She also remembers the doctors and their positive attitudes. That might just be the reason she's aiming to go to medical school to become a pediatrician.
Mrs. Yvette Stone
Yvette Stone won't wait until the end of her teaching career before she judges how successful she's been. She's doing that every day — each class period, even. She does it when her brain is working overtime as she drives home in the evenings. "Did you forget to say hello to that kid?" she asks herself. Yvette has spent 11 years at Bartlett teaching more than medical career classes. She's teaching students grit — to stay focused when life's challenges seem to drag them down. She may have more than 150 students, but she's trying to catch the one who might be slipping away. "I cut them a little slack, but then I say, 'You know what? You may have something going on at home, but this is your ticket. You can pull yourself out of it.'" Yvette wants you to know that Bartlett defies any stereotypes you might have for it. Those who would judge these kids as underachieving don't know how far some have come despite disadvantages. Those who judge the school don't see young people staying, by choice, to do school work until 5 p.m. They don't see these kids act so accepting of one another, never preoccupied by racial differences. They don't see these kids work hard to make their teachers proud. For those students, Yvette is helping them see beyond their stresses, even beyond graduation day when they'll hug and cry. She helps them see to that day when they'll return to high school with a mug from the college they're attending. Yvette has about 25 of them on a shelf in her room. "I love teaching here," she said. "I wouldn't trade it."