Wyoming Seniors Say ‘So Long’ To High School

May 30, 2014

Graduation season is here. Commencement ceremonies around the state mark the start of a new chapter for many of Wyoming’s high school seniors. Wyoming Public Radio’s Aaron Schrank caught up with the class of 2014 to see how they feel about the big day—and the future.

Graduates at Riverton High School line up to receive their diplomas.
Credit Aaron Schrank

It’s the last hurrah for graduating seniors at Casper’s Kelly Walsh High School. The Casper Events Center is packed, and the graduates are in high spirits.

“Pumped, really,” says Zephaniah Connell, who will attend the University of Wyoming on a full-ride as a trustees’ scholar. “There’s not even really words that I can really say.”

“I’m actually feeling really good about it,” says Kellie Reynolds, who will attend community college for two years on her way to becoming a surgeon. “I’m glad that I’m out of high school.”

“I was a little nervous going up there, didn’t want to trip,” says Carlos Salazar, who wants to become a firefighter. “That was pretty embarrassing.”

These three are among 330 Kelly Walsh graduates who will earn, on average, about $5,000 more each year than those who don’t finish high school. And in Wyoming, that’s an issue. One in five don’t get their high school degree.

There are some downsides to graduating. Connell knows what he’ll miss most. 

“Definitely my friends and just the time I got to spend with them,” he says. “I’m leaving a lot of them and that’s going to be pretty sad, but hopefully I’ll make some new friends. That’d be good.”

For so many seniors, saying good-bye to familiar faces eclipses everything else happening on this day. But that’s not the case at one ceremony, 100 miles east in Lusk.

Jacob Williams has just delivered his valedictorian speech. I ask him what he knows about his fellow graduates.

“I hadn’t seen any of them in person that I can remember,” says Williams. “It’s possible I saw one at a field trip or something, but I wouldn’t have recognized them.”

That’s because Williams is graduating from Wyoming Virtual Academy, an online school program of Niobrara County School District. 19 of the school’s 26 graduates came from all over Wyoming for the ceremony.

While their school is nontraditional, for graduates, this day is just as special.

“I’m so proud of myself,” says Evelyn Cantu. “I can’t believe I did this.”

Cantu is the first one in her family to graduate high school, and she’ll be the first in college. She’s ready, she says, because her schooling has taught her independence and time management.

“It’s a little different because you have to self-motivate yourself and, in college, you just have to do the same thing,” Cantu says. “You have to push yourself harder to do what you want to do.”

A 2012 report from UC Boulder’s National Education Policy Center found that students in online schools like this one were further behind in reading and math scores than those in brick-and-mortar classrooms. But, the model works for Donatellia Austin.

Donatellia Austin and her family celebrating at Wyoming Virtual Academy’s graduation ceremony in Lusk.
Credit Aaron Schrank

“It gives you this flexibility of doing so much more with your life,” Austin says. “I was able to go to swimming for four years at Cheyenne South High as well as take two other classes.”

She’s headed to the University of Wyoming to study art. Before online school, she was home-schooled. Her mother and former teacher, Kyle Cameron, says she’s pleased with her daughter’s educational path.

“I made some good choices,” Cameron says. “They were some hard choices at times. Certainly I got a lot of criticism, but wisdom is justified by our children, so I feel justified.”

Most students took a more traditional approach at Riverton High School. 160 more seniors are walking across the stage in a muggy gymnasium as friends and family fan themselves with programs.

It’s pretty standard—modest claps for each graduate—until they get to the C’s and Tyler Campsey approaches the stage.

Campsey has cerebral palsy and gets around school using a wheelchair. Graduation is a big deal, but so is something else he’s doing. He’s walking across the stage, with the help of a walker.

Everyone in the room stands to cheer him on. Later, he tells me just how much that moment meant to him.

“This is what I’ve been waiting for for four years and it culminated today with the graduation ceremony and seeing all my classmates walk, including me,” says Campsey. “It was—it teared a lot of us up.”

Seeing him walk meant a lot to Campsey’s friends, but even more to his mom and dad, Chad and Christi.

“Every Friday they would come up here and practice walking so he could walk for graduation,” says Chad Campsey.

“It’s actually something that he had promised to do for my mom,” adds Christi Campsey. “She passed away 10 years ago. Tyler had promised her before she died that he would walk for her.”

This kind of grit is in character for Campsey. He was part of the swim team at Riverton. In the fall, he’ll attend Central Wyoming College to study radio broadcasting.

“So, hopefully I can do well in that field,” Campsey says, with a smile. 

For Campsey—and for graduates around the state—graduation is quite a feat, but hopefully not a crowning achievement. So, it’s on to the next challenge.

These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen!  -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.