Pacific High’s graduates pose in the sunshine before the ceremony. The school’s commencement exercises are notable for the involvement of parents, and a deep sense of accomplishment from students who never expected to make it this far. (Pictured from left to right) Madison Sprague, David Brady, John McKenzie, Itzel Nunez, and Hanna Swanson. (KCAW photo/Erin Slomski-Pritz)

Like other high schools across the country this time of year, Sitka’s alternative school, Pacific High, recently said goodbye to five seniors in a ceremony unlike your typical commencement. Each year, Pacific High seniors are honored in a unique and personalized ceremony that ranges from the humorous to the deeply personal.

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Sheet’ká Ḵwáan Naa Kahídi is packed with families, friends, and teachers, as the five graduating seniors walk onto the stage, each taking a slow step in time with the music.

“True courage is facing life without flinching,” said Sitka’s co-assistant superintendent, Phil Burdick in his commencement address. “The courage of the everyday, something these graduates and you families have shown consistently, or else you wouldn’t be here right now.”

Mandy Summer has served as principal of Pacific High School for the last three years. She noted that this graduation is about more than just receiving an academic diploma. It’s a recognition of the students, themselves — the unique challenges they’ve faced and the lessons required of them to evolve personally, socially, and emotionally.

“They have more than just academic knowledge and skills,” Summer said. “They have just spent a lot of time working on themselves as a person and learning about different ways to communicate and overcome challenges and how to reflect upon the choices that get placed in front of them. And so it’s just so much more than you earned 20 credits, and now you get to move on to whatever that place is.”

And as families and staff took the stage to honor students through teary speeches, it became clear that the path that led each student to this day was varied, and that the courage required to succeed took many forms. For graduate John McKenzie, it meant overcoming childhood bullying.

In this graduation parents participate. Here’s Mackenzie’s mother:

“And I like to think that when we are young and growing up into the world, that we are faced with challenges that make us into greater people, better people. And John has become a better person because of the challenges he’s faced.”

Graduate Itzel Nunez was honored, along with the other graduates, in music. The Haa Toow’u Litseen Drum Group performed a set as part of the ceremony. Nunez’s mother – also a member of Haa Toow’u Litseen — wrote and performed a song for her daughter.

(Drumming, song)

“They knew I wanted this, but I wasn’t in the mental state,” said a tearful Itzel Nunez. “And they just helped me through everything. They helped me get help. They kept pushing me. That’s all that they could do. That’s why I’m here. Because they never gave up on me.”

The gratitude Nunez feels towards her teachers and family is shared by all the graduates.
Ultimately, the ceremony is a recognition that courage is not something you experience alone.

Commencement speaker Phil Burdick closed with this point: “Your courage anchors me to this plays and tells me that we are moving forward together, that I am in this stony world with you,” he said, holding back tears.

Diplomas in hand, David Brady, John McKenzie, Itzel Nunez, Madison Sprague, and Hanna Swanson were celebrated as the 2018 graduates of Pacific High School. And on the evening of graduation, there was a distinct feeling of moving forward together and with courage.