While the graduation of 166 students at Kodiak High School may have drawn the biggest crowd, five smaller high school graduation ceremonies in the school district brought just as much excitement and promise.

In total, eight students graduated from the Kodiak Island Borough School District’s rural schools, including two each from Akhiok, Ouzinkie, and Larsen Bay schools, and one each from Old Harbor and Danger Bay schools.

The graduations were held in May, with some students honored in their very own ceremony.

“It’s a class reunion every time you look in the mirror,” said one Danger Bay resident, remembering his own graduation years before.

According to rural schools counselor Marilyn Gail, most of this year’s graduates have plans to attend college.

This includes Steel Lee Hartley, a resident of Danger Bay logging camp on Afognak Island. For him, graduation represents another milestone on a pathway to college in Kenai and then Juneau.

Already an adept mechanic, Hartley wants to further his knowledge with an associate’s degree in applied science, with an emphasis on diesel engines.

“He’s hardworking. He’s focused on a goal for his future. He’s been unwavering from that, from the major that he’s chosen,” said Shawntel Allen, Hartley’s teacher at Danger Bay school.

Hartley is also pragmatic about his upcoming life changes, and has a financial plan to make college work. He will work in Danger Bay to make the money necessary before leaving for the Mainland, he said.

“I applied for a scholarship and a grant to cover most of it, but there’s living costs, and I like money,” he said.

Graduates from the rural schools who plan to leave their communities to continue their education face unique challenges.

“I think, really, the biggest challenge is transitioning, if they’re going to go off to college, that transition from real small village life to living in a big city without any family or friends around,” said Kendra Bartz, director of rural schools for KIBSD. “It’s a lot different atmosphere.”

To help ease the transition, the district secured grants to facilitate visits to some of the state’s colleges, universities and technical schools for seniors, according to Gail.

“My thought is … how can someone envision something they’ve never seen?” she said.

Recent Akhiok School graduate Dillon Peterson took advantage of this opportunity and visited some of the schools he had an interest in attending. Ultimately, he chose Kodiak College.

It was important to him to remain close to family while pursuing an education in construction or welding, he said. He hopes he can be a role model for his younger brother, who will graduate next year.

Gail has also provided assistance completing applications for college and aide.

“I think it would be a detriment to them to not have some of the support the school district can give,” Allen said.

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