SHERIDAN — Rachel Jahiel may not have graduated high school had she stayed in a traditional learning environment.
“I always felt a little different,” Jahiel said. “I had a lot of trouble with that.”
Jahiel occasionally questioned teachers and enjoyed thoughtful debates, something she said wasn’t particularly embraced until she transferred to what was then called Fort Mackenzie High School after her sophomore year.
It was a difficult adjustment, but Jahiel grew to embrace the new environment, eventually graduating as salutatorian of the John C. Schiffer Collaborative School, which changed its name last year. The inaugural graduating class of 16 celebrated the achievement Saturday afternoon at the Whitney Center for the Arts concert hall at Sheridan College.
JCSCS principal Troy Lake shared some opening remarks and called the senior class one of the most resilient groups of students he has ever been around.
“They endured change upon change upon change,” Lake said, alluding to multiple principals and school locations. New school colors and a logo were unveiled Saturday as well. The colors were turquoise, red and orange. The logo had the word, “SCHIFFER” in blue-green writing surrounded by six conjoined circles of different sizes.
Julie Greer, project coordinator at the Center for a Vital Community, gave the class speech. In a slightly unusual format, Greer had the students stand and form a circle around her on stage. She gave them seashells that she found in South Carolina during a college spring break trip.
The seashells, like the students, are unique. Hopefully, Greer said, when the graduates see a seashell, they think of their time at the Schiffer School and about the gifts they brought and received throughout their time.
Davidson Greer also said the students have learned to be inquisitive and to support each other and discuss various problems.
“You are prepared for success in ways some others are not,” Greer said.
Jahiel agreed with that sentiment.
“I think that education can be better and the Schiffer School is an example of how that is effective and how it can be better,” Jahiel said.
Jahiel noted that her complexities were celebrated by teachers and classmates.
“At the Schiffer School I never felt as if my value was determined by a test score or grade,” Jahiel said. “Those same differences that I felt had been bad aspects about myself — I was able to learn how those are actually my strengths.”
Jahiel said her best learning experience came from classmates, who she thought of not as competitors, but human beings.
“I experienced a culture shock when I went there, but the school is a lot like a family in that we’re forced to coexist with everyone, even if we’re not necessarily inclined to,” Jahiel said. “Because of this, I became more tolerant and compassionate toward those who are very different from me … It’s easy to make judgments from surface-level observations. However, in doing so, we often overlook the inherent value of people.”
Jahiel said she was grateful for the exposure to different people and recognizing the value of those differences.
“I would just really like to thank my classmates overall, because frankly, that was a really, really poignant life experience that I had, which was to recognize the value of people who are very different than me,” Jahiel said. “I never thought I would leave high school and think, ‘Man, I’m going to miss that place.’”
Jahiel is headed to the University of Wyoming in the fall, likely to study political science. Bidding farewell to her teachers recently was a difficult, odd experience.
“That was probably the hardest thing and that was also really bizarre for me, because I never thought I would have that experience of looking back,” Jahiel said. “I never felt like I had those advocates until I went [to JCSCS] … I can see them not just being the best teachers I had in high school, but people I want to keep in touch with for the rest of my life.”
Truman McTiernan, another member of the graduating class, has a similar story. The first two years of high school involved a lot of stress, and the classes didn’t particularly jell with McTiernan’s learning style.
After she transferred before junior year, she immediately saw her decision pay off.
“It was sort of like, ‘Wow, this is what I’ve been missing,’” McTiernan said. “It was definitely a happy adjustment for me. Things immediately turned around for me in a lot of ways.”
JCSCS valedictorian Alexandria Bautista gave a speech Saturday, noting that the students all had struggles and made sacrifices to get to graduation day. She pushed them to improve their lives going forward.
“I challenge you to be better than the person you were yesterday,” Bautista said. “Learn from the masters, because the difference between the master and the novice is the master has failed more times than the novice has tried.”
Bautista had one final remark.
“Just because you fail doesn’t mean you’re done,” Bautista said. “You’re only done if you quit. So don’t quit.”
Students like Jahiel, McTiernan and their peers at the Schiffer School are living examples of the truth behind that message.