Pandemic school hit these Kansas City, Kansas, students hard. This graduation day, they're thriving.
After COVID-19 upended their academic careers, three recent graduates from a Kansas City, Kansas alternative high school say the pandemic completely transformed their high school expectations and their futures.
For the seniors putting on their caps and gowns in the next few weeks, every year of high school was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Their freshman year started normally enough, but by March, they were coping with the transition to learning virtually and navigating an entirely different world.
“It was March 13. We were let known that we were going to go on spring break,” said Nicole Caldera, who graduated from Fairfax Academy this week. “It was actually a really good year for me, and then we were let known again that we were not going to go back.”
Graduation marked the end of a high school career that was nothing like Caldera expected.
She was hoping for a fresh start when her family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where she started her freshman year at East High School.
After school shifted online, Caldera said she failed to turn in a single assignment. Her family moved back to Kansas City, Kansas, at the end of the school year.
She said it felt like a step back for her. Compounded with the isolation of stay-at-home orders, she was in a bad place mentally.
“Not only because of school, but also not being able to go out into the real world,” Caldera said. “Like not being able to go to the grocery store without being afraid.”
Her classmate Antwone Williams thought a shift to virtual learning meant he could take it easy and enjoy more free time. He said he struggled to take it as seriously as in-person school — he’d sometimes sign into class from bed.
Learning from home brought more than just distractions, he said.
“It was kind of sad and depressing,” Williams said. “If you stay around the same people every day, or if you're just by yourself 24/7, you kind of go mad, almost or get depressed in a sense.”
Some students weren’t just worried about getting themselves to online class. Classmate Kylie Yost said she was taking care of her younger sister full-time when COVID hit.
“I not only had to do my schoolwork, but I had to help my sister do hers,” Yost said. “She didn't want to do it, I didn't want to do it. So we were always battling.”
Yost said she initially tried to attend her classes on Zoom, but eventually quit when she couldn’t figure out how.
With schools shut down for months, Yost said she felt like she missed out on the full high school experience. She had certain expectations for what it would look like, including going to basketball games or even a freshman dance.
“Everybody watched the high school movies and 'High School Musical' and stuff, and we have this big expectation of what high school is gonna look like,” Yost said. “And then bam, it's online and we don’t get to make friends.”
Students continued to struggle with making friends even when schools reopened. Caldera credits part of that difficulty to being isolated for so long during stay-at-home orders.
“When we actually went back into school, it was really hard to develop that ability to be able to make friendships and be able to talk to people again, because I guess I kind of lost that sense of knowing how to do that,” Caldera said.
But there were some upsides, especially at Alfred Fairfax Academy. The alternative school gave students an opportunity to get back on track to graduate after they struggled with traditional schooling.
Williams said before the pandemic, he had never thought about what he would study in college — if he even went at all.
“But after the pandemic, I started to realize how serious life was because people were dying from COVID,” Williams said. “And I needed to take stuff serious. So I started looking into my options.”
If he hadn’t transferred to Alfred Fairfax from Harmon High School his senior year, Williams said, he would have continued skipping and failing classes until he flunked. But now, he plans to learn construction at the local community college and go to a four-year university if he feels like he needs more education.
Caldera ended up at Alfred Fairfax her sophomore year after she struggled to attend classes and got off-track to graduate when she returned to in-person learning. She said her family had a meeting at the district office where teachers said they still saw her potential to graduate — and the alternative school could help her get there.
Principal Skyler Myers said the pandemic shifted people’s view of what education can look like — and it may have helped some parents move past the stigma that surrounds alternative schools and give Alfred Fairfax a shot.
“What it is, is an alternative, it's another option that might actually better suit my student,” Myers said. “Not better than or worse than a traditional education, just different.”
Yost said she also benefited from transferring to the Alfred Fairfax Academy in January 2021. She’s been taking automotive classes at community college and is working at a Toyota dealership. Next year, she’ll be the first female employee to enter a program in Omaha to get a more in-depth education on working with the company’s cars.
Caldera got an early childhood education certificate so she could start teaching at Beautiful Beginnings Early Childhood Education Center. Her post-graduation plan is to raise enough money to buy a car, then save up for her goal of going to culinary school.
Myers said he credits the trio’s success to the hard work they put into their futures.
“Our philosophy is here, if we can get students and kids who are willing to give engagement an option, we can get them to do some pretty great things or open up some pretty awesome doors of opportunity,” Myers said. “With Kylie and Antwone and Nicole, they bought in, they trusted us and, and they did the work.”