I can't remember how I heard that the Tlohon-nipts Alternative School was closing, if it was a passing rumor or someone stating it as fact. A little over a month ago I called up Karyn Veland — a teacher at the school since 2003 and the only teacher for the program this year — and she confirmed that she was being let go and that the program, which has served as a safety net for hundreds of kids over the last 12 years, would cease to exist.
Karyn and I have been friendly for several years now, as some of the first stories I worked on when I started working for the CO in Sept. '02 were about the alternative program. Over those seven years I have photographed or written a number of stories about the program and have shot the graduation ceremony all but one of those years I believe. I even had the chance to give a presentation of my photographs to the school last year. I knew that I was seen as a friend to the program and hoped that it would give me an "in" when I asked to document the final weeks of the program. Turned out they were all more than happy to have me. Here are some of the photos I made while working on this that I liked and felt helped tell their story.
On the first day I stopped by there wasn't a lot of opportunities for pictures at the school, but I heard that some of the students were in a metal band and they practiced at the home of Jasmin Schaefer, a senior at the school, and that several other students would hang out all together over there after school most days. It was here that I made the first "real" pictures of this story.
I was great to have them acknowledge I was there but also forget about me so I just drifted into the background and took pix of them being themselves.
Over the next few weeks I'd drop by as my schedule allowed, catching senior project presentations, an art show featuring works by Jasmin, and a trip to the Ilwaco City Park celebrating the last day for seniors.
Inevitably the last day came. When I visited that day that mood was much more somber than it normally was. I think the kids could sense the finality of it all, however many still kept things pretty light. Its a commendable trait I think to be able to do that in such times.
This one is probably the best of the bunch IMO as it touches so many facets of the story I think. It's important to note that prior to this year the school did not accept students into the program who were dating another student from the school, but in this case Karen allowed it and it made all the difference as she said that Jimmy probably wouldn't have made it through the year without Misty being a driving force in encouraging him to stick with till the end.
Graduation day was a fun time as I hung with them that morning while they rehearsed (though mostly it was having a few last laughs together) and then the ceremony that night. I had the distinct honor of being the guest speaker at the final graduation of the school. You can read a portion of my speech as part of the column I wrote in the paper this week.
Now I am certainly not disillusioned enough to think that my pictures are necessarily going to change the school district's mind about closing the program down. However, it was my goal to perhaps enlighten some of the public that though these kids were in the "alternative" program that they were really not all that different from any other high school kid, and that supporting them through a program that was able to help them reach their goal of a high school diploma is something a community should do. Hopefully it will at least start a discussion within the community as to the importance of giving every kid a chance, even if it is a different way of doing so.
I'd like to thank all 20 students of Tlohon-nipts and Karyn Veland for being so gracious in sharing their lives and stories with me!
BTW, I also produced an audio slideshow of the story. You can click HERE to watch it (it's a little too big to embed in my blog template) it features quotes from some of the graduating seniors and excerpts of their "life poems" they wrote about themselves as part of their senior projects. I think it turned out really well. You should probably let it load all the way before playing it for the best experience.