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Boulder County graduating seniors celebrate accomplishments after pandemic school disruptions

Seniors Lucy Huitt, from left; Claire Sznewajs; Alana Hein; and Tessa Kertzer dissect a shark in Paul Strode’s anatomy and physiology class at Fairview High School in Boulder on Tuesday. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Seniors Lucy Huitt, from left; Claire Sznewajs; Alana Hein; and Tessa Kertzer dissect a shark in Paul Strode’s anatomy and physiology class at Fairview High School in Boulder on Tuesday. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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Monarch High graduating senior Hannah Rowtondressed a cardboard cutout of “Harry Potter” villain Draco Malfoy in different outfits as a backdrop to keep herself engaged as online classes dragged on during her junior year.

“It was hard mentally,” she said. “It was so hard not knowing when things would end, if I would get a senior year, if we could take masks off. In classes, I feed off of people’s energy. Online, it didn’t feel like school. You could feel how everybody was burned out. To feel so disconnected was hard.”

Graduating senior Hannah Rowton poses outside Monarch High School on April 28.(Amy Bounds/Staff Writer)
Graduating senior Hannah Rowton poses outside Monarch High School on April 28. (Amy Bounds/Staff Writer)

Senior year, with a return to regular in-person classes and cherished traditions — senior prom, the senior gauntlet and slideshow, and a graduation without invitation limits — was a relief, she said.

“The pandemic has taught me that you shouldn’t take these traditions for granted,” she said.

This year’s graduating seniors share struggling through online classes, missing many of their community building high school experiences and the feeling that high school sped by in a blur of pandemic disruptions — followed by a senior year dash to cram in all they missed.

Rowton is part of the Louisville school’s theater community, a 360 mentor program leader and a yearbook staff member. She’s been a theater officer for two years, as well as an actor and the head of costumes. Her favorite show remains “Urinetown,” when she scored her first feature role and solo her freshman year.

“I love that show,” she said. “It made me fall in love with theater.”

She said the continuation of theater, though the formats changed to meet pandemic restrictions, helped her stay connected to school and friends when classes moved online.

“We support each other in every way possible we can,” she said. “We love each other like family. That’s what makes theater, theater.”

Theater also was a source of strength when a new trauma hit her community halfway through senior year. Over winter break, the Marshall Fire burned through 6,000 acres in Louisville and Superior, displacing 800-plus students and 50 staff members.

While her home wasn’t damaged by the fire, Rowton was home alone with her younger sister when the fire started and they had to evacuate. She watched flames engulf a house as she left her neighborhood, then listened to stories of students who were directly impacted as she worked on a yearbook feature.

“I pass through a burn site driving to school every day,” she said. “It’s hard to look at it and remember everyone that was affected. The fire is a very unique challenge for our community. My class has been through a lot.”

After all the challenges of high school, she’s looking forward to taking a gap year before she starts college at Elon University in North Carolina to study secondary education.

With dual citizenship in the United States and Denmark, she’s planning to spend six months attending the International People’s College — a “folk” high school with no grades — in Denmark. Her plan is to learn the language while meeting the three-month residency requirement to maintain her citizenship.

“I can see family and learn more about where I came from,” she said. “I like to think of my gap year as a well-deserved break. I get to breathe and not think about my GPA. I hope I get to know more about myself and my place in the world.”

After college, she wants to become an English teacher — the same career goal she’s held since kindergarten. She said watching her teachers work so hard during the pandemic to keep students engaged only strengthened her desire to go into education.

“Teaching has always been my calling,” she said. “I feel like I can make a difference.”

Caiden Price, a graduating senior at Fairview High, is one of about 500 students who lost homes in the Marshall Fire. He’s now living with his family in an Airbnb in downtown Boulder after initially staying in a hotel.

Caiden Price(Courtesy photo)
Fairview High graduating senior Caiden Price(Courtesy photo)

Returning to school after the fire has been challenging, he said, with schoolwork adding to the stress of losing his home and all his possessions. He’s only replaced the “necessities” to finish his high school year.

“I just got thrown back into school,” he said. “My grades have suffered.”

A hockey player, he also lost all his equipment, but it was replaced with new gear through the Colorado Avalanche’s donation program.

He played goalie for his hockey team through most of the pandemic, quit briefly and is playing again. He also started working at Rocket Skate in Louisville about a year ago. After graduation, he plans to attend the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder and try out for the college’s club hockey team.

“Business is what I’m most interested in,” he said. “I want to be an entrepreneur. I don’t want to work for anyone. I want to start my own business and grow it myself.”

Robert Burke, a graduating senior at Longmont’s Skyline High, originally wanted to be a musician. But then he tried a tech crew class, working on a school play as a freshman, and “it lit a spark.” Now, he’s a stage manager.

“I wanted to be the stage manager since I took that class,” he said. “When I was able to do it, I was so happy. You have to know a little bit about everything.”

Robert Burke, right, works in the Skyline High auditorium as the stage manager on the tech crew during an April 29 jazz festival.(Amy Bounds/Staff Writer)
Graduating senior Robert Burke, right, works in the Skyline High auditorium as the stage manager on the tech crew during an April 29 jazz festival.(Amy Bounds/Staff Writer)

Still, he said, it was tough to miss so many performances as they were canceled or modified because of the pandemic.

His sophomore year, the pandemic closed schools the day before Skyline’s fine arts festival, which was slated to include a flash mob and confetti cannons. Junior year, the theater department wrote its own spring musical and then recorded it, but didn’t have a live audience. This year was a return to a more typical production schedule, with a traditional musical and a live audience, as well as many end-of-year events requiring a tech crew.

“Having that live feedback just feels really good,” Burke said. “I was so glad we were able to do a live performance.”

While he never lost his love for working on the tech crew, the pandemic derailed his progress in other subjects. His grandfather died, he was trapped in his house and online classes didn’t work for him. He said he lost motivation, failed classes and had to make up class credits through an online credit recovery program.

He’s only now getting back to a good school routine after the months spent online without the strict schedules of a typical school day, he said. He credited his tech crew teacher, Amy Campion, and his mom with pushing him to improve his grades this semester so he could graduate with his class.

He joined a union when he turned 18 and already has three jobs lined up to work on tech crews for area productions. Even with those jobs, he said, he worries about the experiences he missed running shows while schools were closed.

“It set me back a little bit,” he said.

As he gains experience working with professional theater companies, his goal is to join a touring production so he can see the world.

Sierra Bindseil, a graduating senior at Longmont’s Silver Creek High School, said a return to a more normal senior year meant she could go in person to a nearby middle school for her Leadership Academy capstone project.

Sierra Bindseil (Courtesy photo)
Silver Creek graduating senior Sierra Bindseil(Courtesy photo)

She taught lessons to Westview Middle School sixth graders with a goal of encouraging girls to go into STEM-related fields. She started with a project, such as building catapults out of Popsicle sticks, then connected the project to an influential woman in science.

“There was an eighth grade girl when I was in sixth grade who came around and talked to classes about robotics,” she said. “She really inspired me to get involved. I wanted to do that for other girls.”

She was part of Westview’s competitive robotics team in middle school, then started interning at the district’s Innovation Center in high school. At the Innovation Center, she’s on a team that’s designing and building an underwater robot. She’s also an ambassador for Silver Creek’s Leadership Academy and a senior swim team captain.

She said one lesson she learned, from both the Leadership Academy and online classes, is “you get out of it what you put into it.” Online school also made her appreciate her senior year more, she said.

“It’s just so awesome to bounce ideas off people in class or study with them,” she said. “We had Prom and homecoming this year. It was really great to have those experiences. I wanted to make the most of senior year.”

Her plans include majoring in mechanical engineering at California Polytechnic State University.

“Mechanical engineering is really similar to the work I do now at the Innovation Center,” she said. “You design something, prototype it and make revisions. When you finally get it to work, it’s so rewarding.”

Another graduating senior who worked with middle school students is Ainsley Crist at Lafayette’s K-12 Peak to Peak Charter School. She developed and taught life lessons to the school’s middle school students — online last school year and in person this school year — as a teaching assistant.

Ainsley Crist poses is front of Peak to Peak Charter School on May 11. (Amy Bounds/Staff Writer)
Graduating senior Ainsley Crist poses is front of Peak to Peak Charter School on May 11. (Amy Bounds/Staff Writer)

She said she’s most proud of a lesson she led on mental health and stigma that included telling the story of an older friend at her dance studio who died by suicide when Crist was a freshman. Crist also shared the tools she used to manage her grief.

One of the middle school students later shared that the presentation helped her talk to a friend who was having suicidal thoughts. The friend then told her parents and got help.

“That was really meaningful to me,” Crist said. “It’s empowering to share stories about vulnerabilities and normalize it. We can de-stigmatize mental health issues. My friend was so genuine and kind. I’ve taken it on myself to continue her legacy as best I can.”

She took a tough slate of advanced placement classes, including chemistry and calculus, online as a junior. But she said the most difficult class to complete virtually ended up being a drawing class. While she’s glad her senior year was in person, she added, online classes went well thanks to her own motivation and the efforts of her teachers.

“I’ve never met a teacher here who doesn’t genuinely care about their students’ success, academically and as a person,” she said.

She’s headed to Wellesley, a private women’s college in Massachusetts, with a plan to major in environmental studies with a focus on environmental science and law and policies.

“At this time, when women’s rights are being attacked, I don’t think there’s a better place for me to go to learn to use my voice,” she said.

Her dream job, she said, is to become an environmental lawyer working with Native Americans and other indigenous people on issues like heavy metal contamination and climate policies.

Jaime Alcala, a graduating senior at Boulder High, is planning to enroll at Front Range Community College, likely to study nursing.

“The pandemic helped inspire me to be a nurse,” he said.

Jaime Alcala poses in the Boulder High School courtyard on May 5. (Amy Bounds/Staff Writer)
Graduating senior Jaime Alcala poses in the Boulder High School courtyard on May 5. (Amy Bounds/Staff Writer)

He said he didn’t go anywhere during the height of the pandemic, sticking to texting and calling his friends to stay in touch. He described online classes as “weird,” with less help from teachers and little incentive to sign in to classes when work could be completed later.

He’s looking forward to having more freedom after graduation, but will miss the friends he sees daily now that school is fully in person as they move on and take different paths.

“We get to drop some responsibilities, but now we have to adapt to bigger ones,” he said.

Claire Sznewajs, a graduating senior at Boulder’s Fairview High School, expected her junior year to be the toughest academically. Instead, she said, it was the easiest because of shortened online classes and pandemic disruptions. But junior year was harder in every other way, she said.

When schools closed right before spring break in March 2020, she said, most students saw it as a welcome break. But starting her junior year online was disappointing, she said.

“The teachers did their best, but it was awful,” she said. “I was just so bored. I didn’t have any motivation. You don’t realize how much you miss interacting with people during the day. I learned to appreciate school more. I thought I hated school until I didn’t have it. I realized going to school every day wasn’t the worst thing in the world.”

She said her classmates all coped in their own ways, with some staying engaged in school and others disengaging. To keep herself motivated, she said, she would get up every morning and get ready as if she was leaving the house for school. She added that her school day ended by 1:30 p.m., leaving her with a lot of free time.

“My Netflix addiction got a little out of control,” she said.

BOULDER,CO-May 10:Seniors, Lucy Huitt, left, Claire Sznewajs, Alana Hein, and Tessa Kertzer, dissect a shark in Paul Strode's anatomy and physiology class at Fairview High School in Boulder on May 10, 2022. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Seniors Lucy Huitt, left, Claire Sznewajs, Alana Hein and Tessa Kertzer dissect a shark in Paul Strode’s anatomy and physiology class at Fairview High School in Boulder on May 10. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Senior year, she said, she got much more out of her in-person classes, adding it’s a good lesson for college to not skip classes. Senior year also meant a return to a more normal swimming season, though socially it felt more like freshman year, she said.

“You were at that stage sophomore year where you were meeting new friends when schools shut down,” she said. “Everybody’s social circles got small again. This year was almost like freshman year all over again this year.”

She’s attending the University of San Diego after graduation and is considering a pre-med track with a major in biology.

“I’m really excited for college,” she said.

For graduating senior Zach Boggess, who attends Lyons Middle/Senior and the Career Elevation and Technology Center, the welding program kept him engaged and pulled him through the pandemic. Before finding welding, he said, “school was never really my thing.”

“It doesn’t really feel like class where I come here,” he said, adding he serves as the welding class aide this semester, fixing machines and helping other students. “I can share my knowledge.”

Zach Boggess moves a fuel tank during a welding class on May 6 at Longmont's Career Elevation and Technology Center.(Amy Bounds/Staff Writer)
Graduating senior Zach Boggess moves a fuel tank during a welding class on May 6 at Longmont’s Career Elevation and Technology Center. (Amy Bounds/Staff Writer)

Starting in the welding program as a junior, he learned the basics of metal properties and welding processes in the online classes. Students in the technical education program moved to in-person classes, in small groups, after Thanksgiving.

“Learning how to weld, you have to do it here,” he said.

This school year, he was part of a team of three students who won the state’s SkillsUSA Team Fabrication Welding competition, a contest that required them to build a 6-foot-tall structure from scratch by following a blueprint. They’re now headed to the national welding competition in June in Atlanta.

He’s still considering his options after graduation, including going straight into the workforce with the structural welding certification he earned at the Career Elevation and Technology Center or taking a community college class on pipeline welding.

He said he wants to pursue welding as a career because he found a talent for it and likes the varied job opportunities, from working on pipelines to working on cars.

“I can do anything with welding,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll every really get bored with it.”

Tatum Howell, a graduating senior at Boulder’s New Vista High School, decided she wanted to attend college in another country and spent hours during the pandemic researching her options. She settled on a school in Wales, where she plans to major in law and Spanish.

“Spanish and law together will be a good combination to work on the discrimination that happens in the United States,” she said.

Tatum Howell(Courtesy photo)
New Vista graduating senior Tatum Howell(Courtesy photo)

Her passion for social justice led her to join New Vista’s equity committee, which addresses individual student issues, brings in guest speakers to provide education and works to incorporate equity in the school’s classes. She said she’s most proud of an online panel addressing ableism that she hosted.

She said she “stumbled through” online classes, pointing to the challenges of less one-on-one time with teachers, fewer class discussions and limited separation between school and home life.

“It was really difficult for me,” she said. “I had a hard time staying focused.”

At the same time, she said, she experienced “a lot of personal growth” during the pandemic, including clarifying what she values in herself and others. Watching the instability created by the pandemic also prompted an interest in how the country’s systems work, including the legal system.

“I want to be involved in the systems that you need to function in our society,” she said.

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