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CSD’s Class of 2021 Celebrates Moment of Triumph in a Year of Pandemic Challenges

For the Class of 2021, graduating is more than just the culmination of 12 or more years of schooling. It’s a moment of triumph in a year of pandemic challenges.

Canyons District’s graduates have endured a year of loss and grief. They’ve adapted to quarantines and distance learning, and braved the uncertainty of not knowing if the hard work they were putting into artistic or athletic endeavors would pay off in performances, competitions and state and regional championships.

But it was also a year of renewed bonds, compassion, and strength as communities pulled together to comfort and support one another. “We saw teachers, counselors, and students going out of their way to make this the best year they possibly could,” said Alta High graduate Saskia Paepke-Chile.

In the end, Utah’s increasingly sophisticated prevention measures took root to help slow the spread of COVID-19, enabling high school seniors to salvage such cherished traditions as dances, awards ceremonies, and graduation ceremonies. These celebratory events have brought much-needed cheer to CSD’s campuses and provided students time to pause and reflect on all they’ve experienced and learned. For our graduates, it feels like a turning point, a welcome and fitting conclusion to a year that has tested us all.

“This school year was about making the best of every situation. It’s about being strong and flexible with the challenges we faced this year,” said Paepke-Chile, winner of a Canyons Education Foundation scholarship and Latinos in Action leader. “Those challenges helped me realize how change can be scary, but so necessary to become more resilient.”

The Class of 2021 will go forth knowing it’s the courage to continue that counts.

“We all know that this year hasn’t been the best, and it’s been super hard to find motivation being able to get up every morning. It was hard to drive to school not knowing if everyone was going to be there,” said Davion Washington, Senior Class President at Jordan High. But the “beautiful scary moments” are what Washington says he’ll miss most.

“It may seem kind of weird, but I honestly loved being able to walk through the halls every day still seeing people trying to have a good day in a hard year. Every little ‘hi’ in the halls was motivation to keep coming every day,” he said. “We are the class that ‘Miss Rona’ thought she could stop. But guess what: She merely put up a staircase to help us ascend.”

Washington and Paepke-Chile will join their Jordan Beetdigger and Alta Hawk peers, Brighton Bengals, Corner Canyon Chargers, Hillcrest Huskies, and Diamond Ridge Raptors at commencement ceremonies this coming Wednesday and Thursday. Read on for a roundup of each school’s graduation events.

Alta High

“There are far, far better things ahead,” once wrote C.S. Lewis, “than any we leave behind.”   While an inspiring sentiment for most high school graduations, the noted author’s wise words are especially fitting for Alta High’s Class of 2021, which is headed into the world after pushing through challenges presented by a worldwide pandemic. The 550 graduates of the Sandy-area school received their diplomas during commencement exercises on Wednesday, May 26 at the University of Utah’s Jon M. Huntsman Center. Health protocols enacted to stem the spread of COVID-19 were lifted in time for the Alta administration to plan a ceremony at the U., which has an early-college partnership with Alta High. Principal Dr. Brian McGill announced on Wednesday that, since 2016, students in the “Step2theU” program — the only one of its kind in Utah —have saved a total of $4.2 million in tuition costs. The co-hort of AHS students who graduated this week have saved $1.2 million in tuition and will start at the U. in the fall as sophomores, he said. “We are grateful to the U. for this unique early-college partnership,” McGill said. “Alta is the only high school in all of Utah to offer such.”  In all, Alta High’s graduating class earned some $8 million scholarship offers — “which is more than I have seen in my seven years of being principal,” said Dr. McGill, who added that 90 percent of Alta’s 2021 graduates plan to attend a college or a university in the fall. Also notable in Alta’s graduating class are the students who completed all 12 years of study in a Mandarin-Chinese dual-language immersion program. The Class of 2021 is the first in Utah to complete a first-through 12th-grade DLI course of study in Mandarin Chinese. Senior Coleman Hone also thanked Alta’s faculty for pushing them to higher levels of achievement during their time at Alta, which was marked not just by the pandemic but by construction projects. A major renovation of Alta started three years ago, when this year’s graduate’s finished their freshmen years. The teachers inspired the students to exceed expectations, he said. In classrooms, they “gave us hard work because life is hard,” Hone said.  “Now we need to focus on one thing: Tomorrow.”  Senior Vivienne Zielinski urged her fellow graduates to always remember that they are fortified by their experiences and memories.  She encouraged them to take heart in challenging circumstances and the knowledge that, yes, they can do hard things. “You are stronger than you believe you are,” she said. McGill lauded the Class of 2021 for their strength and resiliency in the face of the challenges presented by the pandemic. “This year felt like the sequel to ‘Jumanji,’” he said.  “I will gladly put this school year behind us.” McGill also told graduates that COVID-19 laid bare the need for professionals who contribute to the health, wellness and safety of society, both in work skills and regard for civil humanity.  “Do your best,” he exhorted students, “and always be your best.”   Assistant Superintendent Dr. Bob Dowdle also encouraged the outgoing seniors to remain respectful of others no matter how high they go in their pursuit of success.  “I invite you chose kindness,” he said. Canyons Board of Education member Amanda Oaks said the year’s COVID-19-related challenges, including Alta’s eight schedule changes in 14 weeks of because of the number of rising case counts, helped fortify the Class of 2021.  “Life requires steep tuition,” she said. But the most remarkable people, she said, often must stare down challenges — and tap their “gutsiness” — to find their voices, bring to life their passions, and bolster their determination.

Brighton High

Time marches on. That much was evident as Brighton High’s Class of 2021 took to the school’s football field for their Wednesday, May 26 commencement ceremony. Large earthmovers adjacent newly-rebuilt stadium seats on an under-construction campus were a reminder of the pace of progress, even in a pandemic. But, for the 475 Bengal graduates who braved the disruptions and unknowns of the past year, the school’s 51-year-old circled halls were, perhaps, a more apt metaphor. It’s easy to get lost walking the inner and outer circles or venturing into the remote 400 hall, recalled Canyons School Performance Director Cindy Hanson of her first introduction to Brighton years ago as an assistant principal. “But I soon found out that I just needed to keep walking, because I was going to end up where I started and have a new opportunity to get it right.” The Class of 2021 faced plenty of obstacles this year, learning moments, and chances to get it right — and with patience and perseverance they prevailed. “In all the graduations I’ve ever been a part of, this one is probably the most unique. We’ve all endured quite a ride over the past 15 months,” said Principal Tom Sherwood. “What makes this experience unique is that it was a very shared experience, something that all of us have experienced together as a human family. We’ll all be able to speak of it for the rest of our lives. We’ll all remember it.” The Class of 2021 chose not to let the obstacles they encountered define them.  Seventy-two percent of Brighton’s graduates earned Advanced or Honors Diplomas. Over their four years of high school, they took 1,130 Advanced Placement tests, some in pursuit of an AP Capstone diploma. They also earned $7.6 million in college scholarships and 1,874 hours of college credit through concurrent enrollment courses. A good number (35) boast a 4.0 cumulative grade point average, 37 achieved a score of 30 or greater on the ACT college-entrance exam, and 15 are graduating with Seals of Biliteracy affixed to their diplomas. This, in addition to region and state titles in sports and the performing arts and Brighton’s Model United Nations team taking first in the country at nationals. “It’s hitting me now, as I look out at all of your faces, how much I’m going to miss you,” said senior Steve Callister, ticking off some of his peers’ accomplishments. “We’ve all played different sports, been in different clubs, been in plays and different competitions. But one thing ties us all together. We are Brighton Bengals. We bleed orange and white and blue, and that will never change.”

Corner Canyon High

Corner Canyon has developed a reputation of being a football dynasty after winning three state championships in a row, but the Chargers’ stadium hosted the school’s most important win on this beautiful spring night — the Class of 2021’s graduation. The night included everything from pomp to a procession that had bagpipes, faculty and 580 seniors; a touching tribute to a senior who passed away this year — Dallin Walker; uplifting speeches, student-produced musical numbers, the awarding of diplomas and a fireworks show that lit up the sky above an impromptu mosh pit and wild celebration by hundreds of graduates. Principal Darrell Jensen, who was humorously introduced with an Eminem walk-up song, gushed about how this senior class strived for excellence — and achieved it — in times of adversity. “You have set a legacy that will be tough to follow,” he said. “You have exemplified our school motto, ‘Semper Excelsius’ — always higher. You have taken your charge as students of Corner Canyon very seriously.” They did indeed. Jensen lauded the seniors for receiving close to $13 million in scholarships, with more than 50 percent of the class receiving scholarship offers. Seventy-eight seniors are on track to receive the prestigious Regent scholarship. Thirty-three students are graduating with perfect 4.0 GPAs, three earned their high school diplomas and an Associates Degree. The school administered 1,348 AP tests. Four seniors were National Merit scholarship finalists. Almost 400 received an advanced or honors diploma. Eighty-one completed the tasks necessary to wear the Charger medallion, while 500-plus earned academic cords. Jensen had the six students enlisted to the military after graduation stand up to be recognized. Corner Canyon also excelled on the playing field, he reminded the class and crowd. They won three region championships, three state championships (football, boys track and field, and cheer) and are favored to win the lacrosse title Saturday. Six athletes won individual championships. The football powerhouse also boasts the Class 6A MVP, Utah’s Mr. Football and the newly crowned Gatorade National Player of the Year in Jaxson Dart. He commended the choirs, the theater program, the orchestra and band and multiple clubs for excelling in their competitions. The class also raised $60,000 for charity. “Time and time again, this class demonstrated its ability to adapt to an ever-changing situation to take on difficult challenges and to succeed unlike any other class in our school’s history,” Jensen proudly said. He finished his entertaining speech by stepping off the stage and leading the students in a loud Charger cheer. After accepting the Class of 2021, Canyons School District Assistant Superintendent Dr. Robert Dowdle pleaded with the grads to spread good in the world. “One thing that will define is how you treat other people. Graduates, I invite you to choose kindness,” Dowdle said. “This world needs more people who choose to be considerate, generous, empathetic and who shun actions that do harm.” CSD Board of Education member Holly Neibaur lamented with the students that they’d lost their Homecoming Dance, that they had to wear masks for 150ish days, that they suffered through “Chromebook fatigue” and couldn’t do many enjoyable school traditions. She harkened the words that Gandalf shared with Frodo when the hobbit admitted he wished he hadn’t had to carry the burden of The One Ring. “So do I and so do all who live to see such times,” she recalled Gandalf telling Frodo. “But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that has given us.” That reminded her of the Chargers’ dedication through difficulty. “Tonight when I look out at you,” Neibaur said, “I think what a great job you have done with your Corner Canyon time that was given to you.” Senior Class President Annika Elmont invited classmates to carry Corner Canyon’s winning tradition into the future. “We are Chargers and we’ll always be,” she said. “So let’s do what Chargers do best — succeed.” Fellow student speaker Willow Rosenburg, one of the valedictorians, jokingly congratulated seniors for making it to graduation day considering only 49 percent were on track just a month ago. “It’s easy to focus on the hardships of this year,” she added. “But throughout them all we have still held up Corner Canyon’s reputation as being one of the best high schools in Utah in education, sports and most importantly students.” Another valedictorian, Willow Rosenburg, spoke about the beauty of failing. She urged her peers to be open to new adventures and opportunities, to fully see what life has to offer even if they’ve been scared that they couldn’t do it or might fail trying. “I challenge you just to try something new.” She also quoted Bob Ross, who championed a similar outlook. “We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.” Chloe Call, one of the student body officers, elicited laughs with the ending of her speech about being the best version of yourself. “I would like to share a quote that’s been etched on my heart as well as on the Tech Hall bathrooms, ‘Pain is temporary, but swag is forever.’” And with all that, hundreds of CCHS graduations left the stadium in hopes of living up to the graduation theme, “The start of something great!”

Diamond Ridge High

The hard work and resilience of the 59 graduates of Diamond Ridge, Canyons District’s alternative high school, were celebrated at the Thursday, May 27 “drive-thru” graduation ceremony held in the parking lot of the campus. Families honked horns, cheered, and shouted for the broadly smiling graduates. At the event, graduate Martha Lopez Rodriguez told the students and their families that she transferred to Diamond Ridge after her sophomore year. She said she struggled because of her “attitude and behavior at school.” At her previous high school, she was “not excited about coming to school and learning.” Then, one day she realized that “this is not what I wanted my life to be like … I wanted to try and succeed. I didn’t want to fail anymore.” At Diamond Ridge, she redoubled her efforts, made up lost time, and earned her certification as a nursing assistant. She now has her eyes set on attending Salt Lake Community College and then the University of Utah’s nursing program. Principal Amy Boettger lauded all the students for “showing up” for their dreams. “You have endured so many challenges,” she said, “but no matter what, Raptors get back up every time.” Board member Amber Shill said that the Class of 2021 is special in many ways. “But you will also forever be known as the students who turned 18 against the backdrop of COVID-19. For the past year and a half, as the world faced a pandemic, it would have been easy to give up. To not log on to learn. To not engage in learning because a glimmer of a future was so hard to see in the distance.” The beautiful thing about earning a high school diploma, Canyons Superintendent Dr. Rick Robins told the graduates, nine of whom plan to attend college and two have enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces, is “that you have made it this far. And it’s not something that anyone can ever take away from you.” Director of Student Advocacy and Access Karen Sterling, who was one of the driving forces behind the creation of Diamond Ridge seven years ago, noted that Diamond Ridge is a “school of choice,” meaning that students choose to leave their boundary school in search of an environment that appeals more to their personalities, learning styles, sense of community, or work schedules. “Think back on the time that you have spent here,” she said. “I hope you can recognize your accomplishments. You have proven that you can do hard things. That is a life lesson that carries on.” Shill expressed thanks to the faculty and staff for their hard, important work, especially considering the challenges posed by COVID-19. “To the family and friends who are here today — I also applaud you,” Shill said. “This ceremony is as much for you as it is for the graduates. I have no doubt that some of you wondered if you would ever see this day. I know high school students, and I’m sure there was some last-minute work, maybe some pleading with teachers, to get everything done in time to attend this ceremony today.” Robins reminded the students that it was a “team effort” to arrive at Graduation Day. “My hope is that you will look back on this time and reflect with gratitude on what your parents and teachers have extended to you.”

Entrada High

Saturday, June 26, 10 a.m.
Jordan High School Auditorium, 95 Beetdigger Blvd., Sandy

Hillcrest High

For 59 years, graduates of Hillcrest High have donned robes and mortar boards, sat through speeches, and crossed a commencement stage to receive their diplomas. But this year was different. This year marked the first time in recent memory — and the last time — these rites of passage would take place inside the school’s auditorium, which is coming down this summer to make way for the new home of the Huskies. It also marked the end of a year of learning in a pandemic with all its accompanying loss, heartache and challenges. “A whole new way of life emerged this year. We learned new things about face masks, PPE, sanitizer, rapid antigen tests, contact tracing, distancing, Test to Play, Test to Stay, isolation, quarantine, positivity rates, and vaccinations,” Canyons District Superintendent Dr. Rick Robins told Hillcrest’s 450 graduates on day No. 1 of the school’s two-day graduation ceremony. “And yet through it all, the Class of 2021 has emerged victorious, and is standing here tonight ready to take the next step in life.” Reflecting on what it took to pull off prom and “giant musical” while continuing with sporting events and other aspects of school life, Hillcrest Student Body President Max Lepore said, “We were never too small for the occasion and we left nothing on the table.” Indeed, 61 percent of Hillcrest’s graduates received Advanced or Honors Diplomas. Among their ranks are two National Merit Scholarship winners and two runners-up in Utah’s Sterling Scholar competition. Hillcrest seniors this year took 903 Advanced Placement and 373 International Baccalaureate tests. They completed more than 2,000 college credits through concurrent enrollment courses and earned $6.5 million in scholarships. Long a performing arts powerhouse, the school took top honors in state and regional music, dance, and theatrical competitions. And of special note to Principal Greg Leavitt were the nearly 10,000 hours of community service performed this year. After an evening of music and speeches, Leavitt reconvened with the Superintendent, Canyons Board of Education Vice President Steve Wrigley and Board member Mont Millerberg to hand out diplomas. Students arrived at the school at appointed times and walked down a hallway with family members in tow, cheered by faculty members who offered hugs and posed for photos. More than once, parents pulled teachers aside to offer words of thanks for making the most of a difficult year. The graduates then stepped foot inside the school’s auditorium for the last time, perhaps recalling the parting remarks of their principal from the evening before. “Life is made up of firsts, lasts and onlys. This is last time this auditorium will be used and the only time you will graduate from high school. Yet, I hope it’s not the last time you will receive educational recognition,” Leavitt said “For 59 years, students have walked into this school. The Class of 2021 takes second to none of them.”

Jordan High

With their maroon gowns rippling like so many ribbons in the wind, Jordan High’s seniors stood Wednesday on their football field for the final time as Beetdiggers. And they were totally digging the moment. Cheers erupted throughout Wednesday’s commencement exercises held at the stadium, which was packed with friends, family, and alumni of the venerable school that is steeped in tradition. Looking out over the crowd, valedictorian Kira Brooks noted how each member of the graduating class — 411 in all – embodied “the Beetidgger spirit” of excellence, inclusion, and hard work. For proof of that, look no further than the achievements of the JHS students who were handed their diplomas on a raised stage in the end zone. Principal Wendy Dau said that Jordan’s senior class has received scholarship offers totaling more than $5.5 million, the largest tally since 2013. Dau, who has served as Jordan’s principal for four years, also said 40 seniors earned the Seal of Biliteracy on their diplomas, meaning they reached high levels of proficiency in reading, writing, and speaking in two or more languages. This is the highest number of this honor ever awarded at Jordan High, she said, adding that a graduate who was ending her high school career with a 4.0 GPA earned the seal by being proficient in the language of Khmer, from her home country of Cambodia. More than 75 percent of the graduating class submitted an application to attend college after high school graduation, and a third of those who applied will be first-generation college attendees, Dau said, An impressive 75 percent of the Class of 2021 earned college credit through concurrent enrollment courses, the school’s dual-language Immersion Spanish program, or by taking Advanced Placement exams. These students earned almost 6,200 college credits. In total, this year’s students saved over $1.8 million by earning college credit while attending high school. Some 159 seniors also earned a Career and Technical Education honor cord, signifying they completed at least three credits in a specific strand of study in CTE. In a year when it was unknown if students would even be able to take the field in athletics and activities, state titles were won by ‘Diggers on the cheer and swim team, and 25 students earned Academic All-State honors. Even with all those noteworthy achievements, what makes Jordan High truly special, said Taylor Tilby, a member of the drill team who has TAR syndrome, a rare genetic condition in which patients are born without the radius bone on the forearm, is that everyone, regardless of their interests or backgrounds, has a place there. Salutatorian Megan Duval also noted that the culture at Jordan High is inclusive and welcoming. “When I first started going to Jordan, it was the first time I felt like I could be myself.” The list of commencement speakers, which included two students, Vanessa Gonzalez Pliego and Michelle Dominguez, who gave their addresses in both English and Spanish, was truly reflective of the demographics — and spirit — of the school, Dau said. “Jordan High recognizes there is a place for everyone,” she said. Board President Nancy Tingey encouraged students to “keep on digging” even after they leave Jordan High. After all, the act of digging requires effort and encourages discovery. Superintendent Dr. Rick Robins congratulated the students for “emerging victorious” from the COVID-19 school year, which required sudden pivots to online learning, the wearing of masks, social distancing, quarantines, and isolation. It may have been tough, exasperating even, he said, but “now you know that you can overcome any challenges that come your way.”

Jordan Valley School

Short, sweet, sentimental and sobering. Those four words aptly describe the heartwarming ceremony held Friday, May 21 in honor of students who have completed their time at Jordan Valley School. Among those celebrated at the event, which was staged in the Midvale Middle School auditorium, were four students from the Class of 2021 and seven alumni who weren’t able to celebrate their commencement last year due to COVID-19 restrictions. “You have brought sunshine into our lives,” Canyons Board of Education member Mont Millerberg told the students. “Now it’s your responsibility to shine your light to the world.” Jordan Valley principal Stacey Nofsinger, Canyons Superintendent Dr. Rick Robins and CSD Director of Special Education Misty Suarez offered their congratulations and some words of wisdom for the future. Dr. Robins said the moment reminded him of a quote from the late Larry H. Miller: “Children are messengers to a time and place that we will never see. What message will they carry?” Today, Robins continued, “It’s very appropriate to think about the message that our students in this room will carry with them — perseverance, resiliency, grit, love, patience and empathy, but most of all the message that these students will carry forward is one of hope.” The ceremony, full of laughs, smiles, lumps in throats and tears, also included touching tributes to two students who passed away this year: the late Hayden Barlow (Class of ‘20) and Garrett Andersen (Class of ’23). Two of their parents were given certificates on stage on behalf of their children in an emotional moment that included heartfelt hugs. Canyons Board of Education President Nancy Tingey was on stage along with the other dignitaries to present completion certificates to the students who reached the age limit of 22. The Class of 2021 included: McKelle Baldwin, Maia Kenney, Wyatt Bokovoy and Harrison Jessop. “It is an honor to celebrate with you,” Suarez said. “I’m so proud. Congratulations!” Added Jordan Valley Principal Nofsinger: “You have taught us so much. The hallways will not be the same next year.”

Canyons Transition Academy

Students being honored at the Canyons Transition Academy commencement on Tuesday afternoon were in for a fun surprise after an uplifting ceremony. Dozens of their classmates, who will return to CTA next year, greeted them outside with loud cheers, hugs and a huge “CONGRATS” banner. It was a special sendoff for the 27 students, who had just received certificates of completion, cookies shaped like graduation caps from the PTA, and elbow bumps from Board of Education President Nancy Tingey, Superintendent Dr. Rick Robins, Assistant Superintendent Robert Dowdle, Director of Special Education Misty Suarez and Special Education Administrator Nate Edvalson. Edvalson encouraged students to continue pursuing their dreams by quoting Rigel Dawson: “The only difference between where you are and where you want to be is the steps you haven’t taken yet.” Life is a journey for all of us, Edvalson continued. “We are moving towards a goal. We all move towards our goals one step at a time. I’m so very proud of each of you for taking steps toward your goals, and I congratulate you all for moving boldly into your next step in life.” The commencement included members of the classes of 2020 and ’21. One by one, the students were brought forward as a slide show they helped create played. The event was staged at the District Office in a room located a floor above where the students ranging from 18 to 22 attend the academy. Students shared favorite memories — such as bowling, hiking, cooking, talking to teachers about Star Wars — and plans for futures that they prepared for by learning life skills during the time at CTA. One student said she appreciated learning to make eye contact while speaking. Others were taught how to rotate tires and change oil, how to not get in trouble (eliciting laughs), how to ride the bus and cross a street. And then there was this honesty-is-the-best-policy answer: “My favorite part of CTA was going home at the end.” After hoopla, hurrahs, smiles and a few tears, they all did just that when the party ended.

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Lucie Chamberlain

Alta View Elementary

If a movie about super teachers were ever made, Lucie Chamberlain would be a prime candidate for a leading role. Fortunately for her kindergarten students at Alta View Elementary, she already thrives in a supporting role for them. Parents thank her for being a “super teacher.” She is also described as an “amazing colleague.” Whether students need help in the classroom or from home while sick, Lucie goes above and beyond to help them learn, overcome fears, and feel important and cared for. Lucie is the reason a number of kids went from hating school to loving it, according to parents. The way she exudes patience, sweetness, positive energy, and love for her students with special needs melts is appreciated and admired. One parent noted: “Both my kids wish she could be their teacher forever.” Another added:  “She treats every student like their learning and their feelings are her priority.” Super teacher, indeed!

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