ANCHORAGE – The hardest lesson of Jake Carlson’s teenage years hasn’t been taught in a textbook. Perhaps the hardest lesson of his life, so far, has been dealing with loss.
Neither of Jake’s parents will see him graduate from high school. When he was 13 his mother, Lynn, died of a long-term illness. Last May, at the end of Jake’s junior year, his father died unexpectedly.
“Grief sucks,” Jake said.
To be with his family, Jake missed several final exams. He returned to the high school to see what could be done and was told he would need to re-enroll as a junior. Hearing his only choice was to become a “super senior” made Jake consider dropping out. It was a very low point at the end of that summer, he said.
He decided to leave West High School to find a school where he could learn at his own pace in order to catch up on credits. His savior would appear to be just that — SAVE High School.
A School Where Students Save Themselves
Specialized Academic Vocational Education, better known as SAVE, is a fully accredited, alternative high school within the Anchorage School District. Juniors and seniors who are significantly behind in credit apply to attend and transfer to the school.
“This place is just amazing. And I think a lot of people have a misconception about what happens at SAVE and who comes here … I think the stereotypes are pretty wrong,” he said.
Jake said SAVE is like high school “without all the crap.” There are no pep rallies; all field trips and community service are related to learning. The goal is strictly graduation.
“It’s a really caring, nurturing, quiet environment where the goals are very clearly set out,” said Principal Karin Parker.
The school focuses on attendance, above all else. She said the students who do well, almost always show up. So far, Jake hasn’t missed a day.
When Jake got to SAVE in early September, he had more than 1,000 hours of coursework to complete — one credit is about 160 hours.
Jake’s sponsor teacher, Ben Colson, started every class by going over how many hours they all had left.
“If you sit here and look pretty for three weeks in a row, you don’t get anything,” Colson said, explaining that students must actively be producing work to receive credit.
Like Port Heiden, a village 424 miles southwest of Anchorage on the north side of the Alaska Peninsula, SAVE is a quiet place. Students can work in peace.
Jake’s life now is far from the life he once knew. Growing up in an Aleutian Island village, Jake said he kept to himself and spent a lot of time outside exploring. Life was simple and family surrounded him, including his older sisters Chelsea and Tianna.
Everything changed when his mother died. Jake was there, nodding at times, while Tianna described their mother — a strong-willed woman, who served many years on the Lake and Peninsula Borough Assembly.
“She was an amazing woman. She was hard-headed and knew how to get things done,” Tianna said. “She pushed her kids a lot. She always wanted the best for us.”
Their father Jens moved the family to Anchorage after his wife’s death, even though Jake tried to stay behind. Once in the bigger city, Jake said the transition was trying, but he settled in and made a few friends.
“When I was going to West I had a few really good teachers and my same group of friends and I knew everyone,” the 18-year-old said. “And that was nice, until like, everything happened.”
Then he lost his father, too.
It would be some time before Jake found someone to open up to – not until he started fire training class at the King Career Center (KCC) last fall with instructor Rebecca Giacalone.
One requirement for SAVE students is either working or attending career training courses at KCC for half of the day.
“Super shy and quiet, but he had a million dollar smile,” Giacalone said, describing the moment Jake walked into her class.
To get to know her students, Giacalone asks them to write down one insight about their lives. Jake’s was lengthy — and included photos of his family and childhood with them.
“And it was such a beautiful thing to really see someone put so much time and effort into letting me see into their life. And I thought that was really, really kind for him to let me in that much,” Giacalone said.
She attributes his incredible work ethic to something the two have in common: the ability to just move forward.
Giacalone was once a failing student with a lot of home troubles, she said. Her father was ill and her mother was a home health nurse who was away most of the time, leaving Giacalone to care for her father. She stopped going to school and lost interest entirely.
Giacalone took the same course she now teaches at KCC when she was 16 years old. A SAVE graduate herself, she recognizes how important her class is to the students.
She said Jake’s ability to rise above the complications and detriments in his life illustrates the kind of person he is.
“Of all the students I’ve known that have had personal challenges and personal issues, Jake is by far the most kind and compassionate,” she said. “He doesn’t ever want anything. He doesn’t expect any kind of sympathies or special treatments.”
And through their shared life experiences, Jake says the two have formed a strong bond.
“Teenagers need adult figures in their lives. It doesn’t have to be a parent necessarily, it just has to be someone older to fall back on and go to when you need to talk,” Jake said. “Everybody needs that, but teenagers need it most.”
A Rainbow of Caps and Gowns
Principal Parker said students finish their course work and graduate throughout the school year. Even so, she always plans a large graduation at the end of the year.
Students also have the opportunity to walk with the school they transferred from before coming to SAVE, which means students end up wearing gowns of all colors, but Jake said he will only be walking at SAVE.
“They actually cared about my well-being, and I got all my big accomplishments done here, so I’d like to walk here,” he said. “These kids and this school.”
This year, Jake has earned 10 credits toward his goal of graduation, nearly double what most seniors in Anchorage will have garnered by May. He said the best part about the last year is his renewed sense of hope.
“These past four years have been hard, you know how grief is, without one parent and then losing another on top of that kind of tipped it off for a bit,” he said. “But we came back from it … Good things always come after bad things. Life always prevails somehow.”
Every student’s final assignment is to write their graduation speech, which they have the option to give at the ceremony. Jake said he plans to do just that on Friday.
Published on KTVA.com on May 11, 2016.
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