Sarah Garrecht Gassen: Respect isn't earned, it's learned

2013-12-12T07:00:00Z 2013-12-12T07:45:04Z Sarah Garrecht Gassen: Respect isn't earned, it's learnedSarah Garrecht Gassen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The nearly 100 students who attend Sentinel Peak High School in the Flowing Wells Unified District are proof that the American high school system doesn’t work for everyone.

The school, which has started a student council this year and hasn’t had one fight on campus so far this year, will graduate at least nine students at a special ceremony Tuesday. The school uses a combination of in-person and digital courses, and is also home to the district’s online school.

It’s a place of respect and reality — and second, and sometimes third, or fourth, chances — and high expectations for each student, delivered in person every day from the staff of 10. Names are known. Personal circumstances are taken into account but never provide an excuse.

Principal Alan Schmidt knows each student, and students know him — well.

“At most schools, kids try to avoid the principal,” joked Kurtis Rosera, who will graduate in May. He plans to join the Marines and, in preparation, he’s at Flowing Wells High School each morning at 6 — yes, 6 — for training workouts and ROTC before catching the bus to Sentinel Peak at 8:15 a.m.

Students come to this campus, nestled behind the Lowe’s on Ina Road near Thornydale Road, to what’s known as the “alternative” high school in the Flowing Wells School District because they weren’t successful at the “regular” high school.

All but a few are from the Flowing Wells district, and most have been referred to the Sentinel Peak because they fell behind academically. Think a senior with sophomore credits.

Others are at Sentinel Peak because they missed so much class they were suspended (I have never understood how kicking a kid out of school for missing school makes sense, but that’s for another day) or because of disciplinary problems.

“Sentinel Peak has the same curriculum as the high school; it’s not like this is anything less — it’s not dumbing it down,” said Gage LaFarga, who is on track to graduate in May and plans to go into airplane mechanics or architectural design.

So much in life is about finding your place, where you belong. If we’re fortunate, we find that place — but a lot of us don’t. Not because we’re not worthy, but because the world isn’t constructed to include everyone. So for many, Sentinel Peak becomes their place.

“We all have a story; we all have a reason we’re here; we all have trials and tribulations,” said Brooke Bidegain, who came to the school last year after being suspended for too many absences, which she says were the result of her diabetes and her father’s terminal brain cancer. Life got in the way of the rules.

Brooke is president of the new student council and will graduate next school year. “Life’s hard, but you’re going to make it all right,” she said.

Taylor Lucero, who will graduate Tuesday evening, was behind on credits. She’s caught up. “There’s more freedom at the high school, but here is much more focused on the kids.”

Respect is important at Sentinel Peak. “People assume that all the kids here fight and are thugs,” Gage said. “There is no fighting going on; there’s not drugs going on. People think we’re so much different, but we’re not.”

Taylor nods. “If there’s an issue, it’s going to be solved.” There’s no other option.

Everyone knows that if a student causes enough of a problem during the school day to be told to leave class, it’s not a quick trip to the principal’s office to think about what you’ve done and then back to class.

You go home for the day. At least. There are nonnegotiables — like theft, fighting, bullying. “If I can’t trust you, I can’t have you here,” Schmidt said.

His ethic is clear. “I’ll give you the respect, and you give it back to me. Respect is about who you are; it’s not dependent on the other person.”

The emphasis on respect as a personal decision about your own behavior makes a difference. Fights are over before they begin. And, Kurtis says, “no one would make that little huddle around a fight anyway.”

The sense of family is intentional. Some of the students come to Sentinel Peak from chaotic situations that don’t allow them the luxury of just focusing on school. “There isn’t a ‘right answer’ for every kid,” Schmidt said. “Each is different.”

When Jessie Garcia Villalobos came to Sentinel Peak last January, he found kids he’d had problems with at Flowing Wells High School among his new classmates. It was difficult, but they worked out differences.

“Sentinel Peak is a second chance for most of the students. If I hadn’t come here, I would have dropped out by now,” he said. “They actually care here if we’re understanding the subject, and about our opinions. They treat us all the same. Like Miss June, the lunch lady. She talks to us; she cares if we’re eating; she knows us all.”

Schmidt calls Jessie a natural leader. Learning to use that quality in a positive way is key.

“A lot of the kids, they were in trouble, and some kids just got lazy,” Jessie said.

“Here they know they have to give respect to earn respect — because respect is about the value of people.”

Sarah Garrecht Gassen writes opinion for the Star. Email her at sgassen@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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