WASILLA — There may have been plenty of seats available for more to attend Friday’s Burchell High School graduation, but the room was overflowing with pride.
That’s because earning a high school diploma was the last thing most of the 45 seniors in the BHS class of 2013 thought they’d ever do four years ago.
“How many of you really ever believed you were going to graduate from high school before you came to Burchell High School?” asked BHS founder and mentor Peter Burchell. “Raise your hand, be honest.”
No hands go up.
“I’ve got some good news for you,” he continued. “You as graduates know how to become successful. Why? Because you have proved to everybody you are good enough to follow through.”
That’s a far cry from where some of the Mat-Su Borough School District’s most troubled youth found themselves before Burchell High School opened more than two decades ago. Friday’s commencement marked the 25th graduating class for BHS, and Burchell estimates that over the years about 1,500 students have earned high school diplomas through the school.
“We’ve come a long way,” he said. “Our first graduation in 1988, we had two graduates, half a portable, a little cassette player playing ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ and nine cupcakes for the reception. We had so few people, we had two cupcakes left over.”
For proud parent Twila Feezell, Burchell was a welcoming place for her when she graduated in 1992, and the school became a home for her two daughters, Brittany Feezell and Jazmin Lynch. Jazmin, her youngest, crossed the stage Friday as part of the class of 2013.
“My children chose to go to Burchell because of the unity that I had and the compassion and respect that the teachers have,” she said. “They treat you as a person and not just as a statistic. Peter Burchell is an amazing man, and if I had it to do all over again, I’d do it the exact same way.”
Before Burchell opened his alternative school, there were few places homeless teens, teen mothers or students with some behavior problems could find an education, Feezell said.
“I got kicked out of Palmer (High) because I was told I was a bad influence for being pregnant,” she said, adding that without BHS, “I probably would have dropped out, because there were no other options for me at the time.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by some of this year’s graduates who spoke. The school has a tradition of allowing any student who wants to address his or her fellow graduates during commencement.
“When I first got to Burchell, I didn’t want to be here,” said Makayla Hartman. “I didn’t even want to finish high school. It took me a couple of months to realize that this wasn’t just any ordinary school. … They cared, loved and understood. They go extremely out of their way to help us, even if you are an obnoxious brat who skips class and throws tantrums.”
Something that stands out about her high school experience is that the teachers and staff at BHS don’t allow students to quit on themselves, and that their tough love approach helped her mature from someone who had “been suspended multiple times” to a young adult “worthy of a good future and life.”
Although she couldn’t attend her graduation, Melissa McGraw wrote a letter to her classmates, which was read by Diane Demoski. It took her more than six years to finally earn her high school diploma while going through the difficulties of being pregnant and living in substandard conditions.
“I had no idea how rocky and long that road would be,” she said. “I had many health problems come up after having my daughter. … But I worked through them as much as possible while continuing to get through school. My housing situation wasn’t any easier, living in a couple of trailers with no running water and our only heat being a wood stove.”
When he learned of McGraw’s situation, BHS Principal Adam Mokelke started the ball rolling on an effort to build her young family a tiny — but warm and livable — cabin.
While many Burchell students have stories similar to McGraw’s and Hartman’s, there are others who serve as positive examples for current and future students, Burchell said. Like 2013 graduate Dajonee Hale, who in the course of a year went from being a homeless teen to earning straight As in the classroom and a Division I scholarship on the basketball court.
“Hopefully, stories like hers reminds people that we all mess up, and we have to earn the right to change that,” Burchell said. “I’ve always been a blind optimist. I was such a screwed-up kid myself. I waited until I got to college to (straighten out).”
Hale said she’s “grateful to be here to receive my diploma. I’ve worked real hard for this. It feels good to get something major done in my life, and so many good things have happened to me this past year since I’ve been at Burchell.”
The success of the school hasn’t gone without notice, Burchell said. He’s used the BHS model to help start 17 other programs around the state, and the goal is to always improve.
“It’s going to continue to get better,” he said about what’s in store for the next 25 years. “Our graduates are part of the success story. Now please, help us make it better.”
Contact Greg Johnson at 352-2269 or firstname.lastname@example.org.