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Southwest Open School celebrates graduates after tricky school year

Graduate speakers highlight sense of community
Southwest Open School’s class of 2021 tosses graduation caps into the air. (Anthony Nicotera/The Journal)

Family and friends filled the soccer field on the Southwest Open School campus Wednesday evening to celebrate 11 students who persevered through the coronavirus pandemic to receive their diplomas.

After a welcome from the school’s director, Casey Sampson, the audience was treated to a traditional tribal honor song by Mark Wing and the Red Sky Group.

Mark Wing and the Red Sky Group performed an honor song at the Southwest Open School graduation ceremony. (Anthony Nicotera/ The Journal)

Graduate Leila Watkins then took to the podium to discuss how SWOS enabled her to be herself.

“I had this mindset that I had to conform to what others thought of me and what they wanted me to be. SWOS was a turning point for this mindset.”

Watkins graduated a year early.

“SWOS helped me do that,” Watkins said. And they’ve been by my side the whole way.”

The ceremony’s guest speaker was 2004 alumnus Michele Kardokus.

Kardokus emphasized the confidence and self-awareness she gained during her time at SWOS.

“SWOS gave me the foundation to recognize it is not your privilege, nor your disadvantage, that dictates the outcome of your life, but it is your belief,” Kardokus said.

She also encouraged students to give back to their community and hoped to see one of them become a guest speaker for another generation’s graduation.

Graduate Paiten Greer, in her class farewell speech, paid a tribute to each of her teachers and discussed the uniqueness of SWOS.

Graduate Paitan Greer gave a class farewell speech Wednesday evening. (Anthony Nicotera/ The Journal)

“I felt a real sense of community and comfortable enough to be myself,” Greer said.

Sampson, the school’s director, told The Journal after the ceremony that COVID did pose a number of challenges.

Schedules had to be reorganized so that students were in cohorts, when they would normally each have individualized pathways to graduation. This was done earlier in the pandemic in order to keep classes together so students would not be mixing throughout campus.

Seating and other equipment was purchased to accommodate outdoor classes, and students adjusted to wearing masks.

Aside from March to May of last year and a three-week stint after Thanksgiving, the school stayed mostly in-person during the pandemic.

Southwest Open School Director Casey Sampson addresses graduates before they are presented with their diplomas. (Anthony Nicotera/ The Journal)

Sampson did acknowledge potential learning loss during the remote learning periods. Schools officials saw a roughly 23% decline in credit-earning when learning was online.

“There’s a higher risk of disengagement,” Sampson said. “We definitely saw that.”

But Sampson believes that SWOS’ nontraditional style allowed students to bounce back quicker than usual.

“This group showed that they could exist in a world that was changed,” Sampson said. “They were dynamic and flexible and mature. They weathered the storm and pivoted where they needed to pivot.”