Sioux Falls alternative school students’ friendship helps teen after loss of family
SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota — A South Dakota teenager who lost three family members in the past three years is finding support in a friendship at her new alternative high school.
Alicia Salazar’s mother died three years ago during Alicia’s freshman year at Lincoln High School.
Her older half-sister died the next year. Alicia started skipping class, then transferred from Lincoln High School to Joe Foss Alternative School.
She wanted to make her dad proud and show him she could accomplish something big by graduating high school, she said.
Then, he died in July at the age of 48.
Alicia, 17, knows she won’t see his face in the crowd when she walks, but she’s not giving up on her goal, thanks in large part to a friendship with a fellow classmate who’s had her own struggles.
Whitney Thompson is always there to talk, often with the right words.
“She always just reminds me that they’re not there physically, but they’re still there,” Alicia said. “And that they’d still be proud of me, no matter what I do. Especially proud that I just kept going on.”
Whitney and Alicia don’t remember exactly how they met, but they have become supportive forces for each other at Joe Foss.
Whitney, 16, hopped between different schools and programs, including Joe Foss’ middle school program, for years because of insubordination and run-ins with the law, she said.
After years away from a conventional school setting, she started mid-school year at Lincoln High School last year. She just couldn’t find a rhythm in the traditional classroom, Whitney said.
“I missed a bunch of school there,” Whitney said. “I didn’t want to go.”
Returning to Joe Foss was a relief. She’s more comfortable working at her own pace instead of trying to keep up other students, but without Alicia she probably would have dropped out anyway, Whitney said.
“She’s actually been a really big influence on me coming to school,” Whitney said.
Alicia and Whitney are the type of students Joe Foss educators like to see, teacher Rebecca Kaiser said.
Reaching students on the edge
Kaiser teaches all grades and all subjects, and there’s no standard classroom. Kids who come to the program, located in the former Axtell Park Middle School building, often need to be independent to succeed, Kaiser said.
“They are a breath of fresh air,” Kaiser said. “We see a lot of students who are at the edge of giving up.”
Whitney knows she can never understand the scope of her friend’s grief, but she hates to see Alicia in tears.
Her strength is inspiring, Whitney said.
“I’ve never watched someone endure that much … ,” Whitney said, unable to finish the phrase. “I don’t know how you would word that.”
Alicia’s mother, father and half-sister all died from complications because of prescription drugs, Alicia said.
Tears formed in Alicia’s eyes as she remembered her dad. She was mad at him because of the pills. They made him a different person, and he was so out of it that day, he had asked where her mother was, Alicia said. Alicia came home late after going to the gym and hanging out with Whitney, and she went to her dad’s room to talk.
She found him on the bed.
“He wouldn’t wake up,” Alicia said.
She tries not to think about moments that will never happen — no parents at graduation, no parents at her cheerleading events, no parents at her wedding.
When she does, she can usually depend on her friend to make her feel better, she said.
Alicia and her sister, Saundra, moved in with an aunt and uncle. Alicia returned to school this fall more driven to succeed, she said. To honor her parents. To set a good example for her sister.
“I knew I was going to come back and finish,” Alicia said. “I try to be a role model.”
She has an aggressive plan to finish up her credits by the end of this school year. She needs to take 12 classes next semester to graduate, Alicia said. Juggling a busy schedule that already includes working 5 to 6 days a week and cheerleading practice, meeting her goal means stacking on more time for classes and homework.
She wants go to college somewhere near Sioux Falls so she can be with Saundra. She’s rediscovered her motivation to succeed.
“Now that I think about that, I think about the challenge and graduating and my future,” Alicia said. “More than I ever did before.”
Categories: Alternative Education, Dropout Prevention & Recovery, News
Tags: Sioux Falls