With help on board from their high schools, the Tumwater School District’s 2021 graduating seniors have navigated COVID-19’s choppy waters as they pulling their academic boats into graduation’s safe harbors.

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Black Hills senior Will Akers says his school was fantastic in communicating with him on graduation deadlines and events, during a time when communication was tough. Photo credit: Laurie Wiedenmeyer

The schools’ flexibility and creativity have been key during a pandemic that required students to attend only online during most of the year. A.G West Black Hills High School Principal Dave Myers says he and his staff use a “customer service” model to find ways to give students a voice in steering their way through this school year. He says Black Hills took multiple steps to assist students, like providing district-issued hot spots for those who did not have reliable Wi-Fi at home, and providing a place at the school for students who needed internet access.

Myers says Black Hills implemented supportive measures specific to seniors and district procedures guided some steps, such as graduation requirement waivers. Individual schools initiated other steps. For example, Black Hills provided “graduation coaches.” “They were tracking graduation requirements and working on really getting students on track,” Myers shares.

Myers adds that Black Hills arranged for yard signs with seniors’ names and photos for an “Adopt a Senior” program where the community could support seniors. In order to have a more traditional graduation ceremony, the school anticipates having two shifts of ceremonies to allow seniors an opportunity have more of their family/support people attend while still adhering to COVID-19 group size limits. The school is using its website and other communication systems to push necessary and important information out to seniors.

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Black Hills High senior Heer Patel (left) is grateful for Jill Bender’s (right) help navigating college and scholarship applications throughout the year. Photo credit: Laurie Wiedenmeyer

“Being a senior during the pandemic while trying to navigate college and scholarship applications was challenging, but my school did a great job with supporting me,” says Black Hills senior Heer Patel, who will attend University of Washington in the fall. “There were many school staff members who were helpful along the way, including our Career Center Specialist Ms. Bender, who would encourage me to apply for scholarships.” She adds that while the year was unconventional, Black Hills did much to help prepare students to graduate. Senior William (Will) Akers agrees with Patel about Bender’s important guidance. “She was always available for help, and being a senior who is dealing with a move from high school to college, the role she played and her willingness to always listen and help solve problems was unmatched,” he says.

Tumwater High School likewise found ways to keep its seniors from running their boats aground this challenging year. Staff created a page on the THS website for seniors and their families. The page links a  YouTube video of a presentation on graduation requirements, lists year-end senior activities (including those live-streamed) and gives information on the two graduation ceremonies that will be held.

Tumwater High Assistant Principal Marty Reid says they similarly established a “broadband center” where students can access the internet at the school, with staff on deck to assist. Dean of Students and Athletic Director Tim Graham adds that the broadband center helps students having Wi-Fi challenges at home due to remote locations, a high internet demand by other family members working or studying online, or other reasons. Tumwater High senior Elizabeth (Libby) Boyd needed that center. “Not only am I a senior during a global pandemic that requires online learning, but I have no Wi-Fi at home!” she says. She adds that her teachers have been patient and understanding with late submissions since she cannot upload schoolwork at home.

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Tumwater High senior Libby Boyd used the school’s Wi-Fi to complete her online senior year schoolwork. Photo credit: John O’Leary

Reid says Tumwater High dedicated several efforts exclusively to its seniors to make their special last year feel more like pre-pandemic times. “It is part of trying to create normalcy, to bring back opportunities specific to seniors,” Reid says. Examples include a “Screen on the Green” outdoor movie event at the stadium for seniors and “Class of 2021” banners with photos of each senior coordinated by the Tumwater Parent Organization.

The district’s Cascadia High School provides an alternative program to assists students in obtaining graduation credits. Joy Lower, school counselor, says she has been working with seniors not only on academics, but also on issues concerning economic challenges including homelessness, which can significantly impact a student’s education, especially their senior year.

Lower splits her time between Cascadia and Tumwater Virtual Academy. The district created TVA because of the pandemic to address the greater need for virtual instruction. Lower says staff wanted to find ways for TVA students to remain bonded with the students and programs at their originating schools. “We worked closely with Black Hills and Tumwater high schools to keep a close connection with their resident school so the TVA students can still feel connectiveness with the schools, clubs and sports,” she says. TVA’s seniors return to their resident schools in June so they can participate in graduation activities with their peers. TVA also posted information on its website to assist its graduating seniors.

“This has been such a hard year,” Lower says. The district is highlighting seniors on its Facebook page (through student/family submitted information) who kept an even keel during these challenging times and, with school staff help, piloted themselves into the last leg of their graduation voyage.

The Graduating Class of 2021 will forever be remembered for their perseverance, endurance, grit, and determination as they end their school years during a global pandemic!

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