By Tegan Hanlon and Marc Lester
Alaska Dispatch News
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — 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. There, students volunteered to talk 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 and their diverse experiences that are more than skin-deep.
Meet some members of the class:
Patrick Smith has one tattoo on each forearm. On his left, a purple ribbon pays tribute to 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 Patrick took some time off from school. But he has since returned and said he plans to graduate in the spring and go to the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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 classwork 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 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.”
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 and has seen some 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 they wake up on time, eat, and pitch in with cleaning the house. Kasiah doesn’t plan to stop helping his family anytime soon.
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.
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.
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.
Born in Alaska, Isabelle lived in South Korea from age 6 to 13, living in an apartment tower that overlooked other apartments 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 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.
Bella Mailo’s determination is clear. A straight-A student, she was nearly able to graduate from high school early. She says she’ll become a Marine one day 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, 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. “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 3, 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. (end)