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Doing what it takes: Alternative High School graduates 22

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They did it their way.

As they walked up to the lectern to receive their diploma, each graduate of South Washington Alternative High School also took the final steps in a long, arduous and sometimes fraught journey. The class of 2015 were honored in a commencement ceremony June 5 at the District Service Center.

Students in School District 833 can be referred to the Alternative High School if they struggle socially or academically at Woodbury, Park or East Ridge high schools. The school’s smaller class sizes mean that teachers at the Alternative High School can provide students with more personalized attention.

Twenty-two students graduated this year.

“It’s been a good year,” Principal Michael Mahaffey said. “It’s a good group of kids.”

Sierra LaBar overcame a host of obstacles to earn her place among the graduates.

“I’m happy that I’m here graduating,” she said. “I never thought I’d get this far.”

LaBar, 18, said she was hospitalized for an addiction to methamphetamine when she lived in Buffalo. She moved to Cottage Grove to make a new start, but she lasted one trimester at Park before transferring to the Alternative High School.

“I was bullied,” she said.

Like her classmates, Sierra chose a teacher to deliver a short introduction before she stepped forward to accept her diploma.

Science teacher Bradley Kobilka praised her as feisty, passionate and outspoken, particularly when it came to environmental issues. He noted that she took back-to-back environmental science classes. When state representatives voted to suspend water pollution standards for wild rice waters, LaBar took the lead in composing a stern email rebuke to their local representative, Kobilka said.

“She’s extremely competitive,” Kobilka said. “It doesn’t matter if we were building a boat. She wanted to win, which is awesome.”

If some of the class were introverts, LaBar wasn’t one of them. As she walked back to her seat, she raised her arms in triumph.

Each senior was congratulated by Superintendent Keith Jacobus and School Board member Katy McElwee-Stevens. Assistant Superintendents Mike Johnson and Julie Nielsen also attended the commencement.

Graduates included Mike Johanson, who social studies teacher Marty Busch described as an accomplished raconteur who also loved music.

“Mike is a person with deep empathy for his friends,” Busch said. 

During his time at the Alternative High School, senior Ronzell Nelson Jr. seemed intent on pursuing his own unique vision of anarchy, Busch said. 

“I think one of Ronzell’s joys in life is playing devil’s advocate,” he said. “Ronzell loves to argue.”

By the end of his senior year, however, the youth had developed his own mantra, Busch said: Keep it positive.

“He’d become the elder statesman of the building,” Busch said. “He still doesn’t want to fit in, and that’s good.”

Graduates also included Cody Bovee, Jessica Castillo, Jaxon Dwyer, Hannah Fitzsimons, Aubrieanna Green, Mariah Kuczaboski, Nicholas Malecha, Christine Oney, Julio Ortega Sanchez, Ana Pasche, Nicolas Rabbia, Princeston Reid, Scott Tchida, Michael Virnig, Madison Wentz, Zakarius Whidby and Ashley Zenzola. Da’Shawn Philips and Genny Podel also earned their diplomas but did not attend the ceremony.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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