On an early September morning, the staff of Al Kennedy High School gathered in a room at the South Lane School District offices. The Sentinel had approached the district in the prior weeks about chronicling the teachers and students at Kennedy to tell the story of alternative education through the lens of those on the ground. District administrators thought it was a great idea. Kennedy staff had questions. Eight educators sat in a room with a newspaper editor and had a conversation. At the end, they’d come to an understanding: The truth is the truth and the kids come first. Over the course of the 2017-2018 school year, The Sentinel will tell the story of these educators and their students as they navigate a location change, funding gaps and the unfortunately true narrative that sometimes working hard isn’t enough and an education doesn’t fix everything. We’ll tell stories of triumph, tragedy and truth as the tribe at Kennedy makes the most with what it has in its continued effort to slingshot students up and over the barriers to progress through understanding, commitment and engagement while acknowledging the reality that some kids won’t make it.
The building located at 700 E Gibbs Ave. isn’t very big — just one story that fits neatly between two blocks — but it holds a lot. The library calls 700 E. Gibbs home, as does the senior center, which is equipped with an exercise pool for older residents to work out sore muscles and follow doctors’ orders. To the right of the chamber of commerce and left of the genealogical society, double doors mark the entrance to the community center where candidates give stump speeches, nonprofits feed the homeless and, sometimes, young residents ring in 'Sweet 16.' But for all of its responsibility to a city of 10,000, the lights go out at 700 E. Gibbs not long after the sun sets and the busy building falls quiet.
On Friday, Katy Perry broke the silence.
So did Bruno Mars.
And Maroon 5.
And Sir Mix-a-Lot.
Song and dance floated out through the double doors and down the hall to the genealogy center.
And chamber of commerce.
And senior center.
And the library.
The Kennedy kids were throwing a party.
“The kids made all the decorations,” it’s Halie Ketcher’s first prom as Kennedy principal. She was promoted to the position after Cottage Grove High School principal Iton Udosenata announced he would be moving to North Eugene; former Kennedy principal Mike Ingman stepped into the position, placing Ketcher in Ingman’s chair. At the March school board meeting, the South Lane School Board voted to strip ‘interim’ from her title and give her the gig on a more permanent basis.
The decision provides a bit more stability at Kennedy, which undertook a move to Delight Valley this year, but didn’t seem to empower Ketcher to make a crucial decision: Vetoing any other proposed prom theme than “Star Wars” for the school’s May 4 shindig.
“May the fourth be with you, I know,” said Kennedy math teacher David Heritage. Supposedly, the staff lobbied hard for Yoda and crew but the students tossed away the golden opportunity and, instead, landed on camping.
Campfires made from tissue paper and ingenuity bookended the DJ booth while cardboard birds hung from the ceiling. At the center, a tree made from streamers blew in the wind of wild dancing and teenage spirit.
“They made the gifts too,” Ketcher said, pointing out the neatly packaged, deconstructed s’mores that served as favors before taking off for the dance floor again.
It was a popular spot to be.
Approximately 30 of the 78 students enrolled at Kennedy attended prom this year, an event that according to Kennedy staff isn’t open just to seniors.
“That’s the thing about Kennedy, we don’t differentiate that way between classes,” Heritage said. While prom is open to everyone, Kennedy serves mostly juniors and seniors.
Inside, strobe lights fell over the usual prom activities. Girls perched on boyfriends’ knees; group bathroom breaks; couples finding quiet corners; awkward hands hooked at waists and draped over shoulders; and teenagers rushing in, arms raised to make it to the dance floor after hearing the first bar of their favorite song.
Outside, teachers kept count of students arriving and talk about the songs and bands that were popular when they went to prom ("Drops of Jupiter" and No Doubt). Just inside the fenced courtyard, students hold klatches in ball gowns and top hats, a hard-driving effort to get an unlikely pair to dance well underway.
The scene closes the inches of difference between the kids at Kennedy and their peers at Cottage Grove High School, reaffirming that the only thing that separates them is opportunity and circumstance. It makes one shutter to raise a camera and somehow diminish the ecstasy of being 18 and dancing in the dark with your friends on the edge of what’s to come.