Gig Harbor High students put their passion into action … and earn college credit
Gideon Eilers and his late grandfather used to listen to the Beach Boys before his death in 2020 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
Education stories are made possible in part through a partnership with Tacoma Community College, which sponsors Gig Harbor Now's coverage of education.
“He grew up listening to the them, and it not only gave him comfort at that time, it would help him remember things,” said Eilers, a senior at Gig Harbor High School and a member of the jazz band.
This week, as part of a school project, Eilers and his project partner Carter Stevens have arranged for the school’s two jazz bands to play for residents of Cottesmore of Life Care, a nursing home in Gig Harbor.
“We’re very excited,” Eilers said. “We want to play for them, entertain them, but also to bring that community together.”
The concert is one of roughly 80 “Passion Projects” conceived of by students in Karen Kennedy Floyd’s English 131. The year-long course focuses on writing and rhetoric and is part of University of Washington in the High School. Students in Kennedy Floyd’s class will earn 5 college credits.
“I wanted their writing to matter, to make a difference, to reach an audience beyond the four walls of my classroom,” she said. “While incorporating the required UW-mandated writing outcomes into the curriculum, I wanted to show my students that they could have a direct impact on the community as well.”
Tackling big issues
Kennedy Floyd asked students to build their projects around a topic that sparked their passion.
They have worked on projects since January. They tackle issues like environmental pollution, homelessness, mental health, drowning prevention, and domestic violence.
In addition to writing, students used media, such as vlogs, PSA’s and posters, to make their persuasive arguments. Before presenting their projects, they had to research their chosen topic and the potential impact of their proposal.
Eilers and Stevens hope not only to entertain, but to educate others about the benefits of music, especially for the infirm elderly.
“It stimulates the brain in a way that not many other things do,” Eilers said. “It helps with dementia.”
While the majority of projects remain in concept form, nearly a dozen individuals or teams are putting their ideas into action.
District’s first Black Student Union
Senior Jasmine Lopez and sophomore Leila Jeneby (not in Kennedy Floyd’s class) this year founded Peninsula School District’s first (and so far, only) Black Student Union. The girls, who are also good friends, wanted to promote an inclusive culture within the school, something that’s been shown wanting. They also sought to create a place where students of color could feel safe and welcome.
The club, which welcomes all students regardless of their ethnic or cultural identity, was a passion for Lopez even before Kennedy Floyd’s assignment. Her efforts to promote racial justice, equity and inclusion include becoming a student representative to the school board.
“I’ve mostly been telling them about some of the things that the students of color have been working on and some of the issues that have been going on and how to fix them,” she said.
Lopez is optimistic that the club’s equity initiatives, with Jeneby’s leadership, will continue after she graduates.
“We talked to our principal also, and she said that we were really changing the culture of our school and making it more diverse and equitable,” Lopez said.
Something to cheer about
The Gig Harbor High School cheer team had a stellar year capped by varsity winning the state championship in their division, a first for the high school’s cheer program.
New to cheer this year was freshman Annika Urvina, who has Down syndrome. Seniors Samantha Campeau and Zoe McIntosh, both on varsity, said Annika is the inspiration for their Passion Project, which seeks to build connections between the general student population and those with special needs.
“Throughout this season, we really bonded with her and she really enjoyed becoming a part of something and being on the cheer team, and she was really welcome,” McIntosh said. “We kind of wanted the same experience for the rest of the kids that have special needs.”
McIntosh noted that many students with special needs receive some or all instruction in their own classroom, so their ability to mingle with general education students is limited.
This spring, the girls hosted a cookie social for special needs students and all students were welcome. In addition, McIntosh attended A Night to Shine, a dance gala for teens with special needs hosted in February by Harbor Christian Center at the Tom Taylor Family YMCA.
Campeau and McIntosh made a video public service announcement, shown around school, about the opportunity to be more inclusive of students with special needs. They hope it’s a message that will spread.
Wisdom in hindsight
Juniors Nick Lang and Josh Riggs want students in middle school to avoid the study habit mistakes they made. Both say they’ve had to play catch-up because of not taking their education seriously before they got to high school.
They’ve created a slide show with study habit tips to share with students at Goodman Middle School through a connection with one of Lang’s former teachers.
“We say study habits and not grades because they can easily say, ‘Oh, we’re in middle school; grades don’t matter,” Riggs said. “But our research shows the study habits they create carry over into high school when it actually does matter.”
Lang and Riggs are doing well in school now, looking forward to their senior year and what lies beyond.
Clothing for kids in need
Ashlyn Pepich and her partner, both juniors, chose to hold a clothing drive as their Passion Project. Through research, they found that two in five children experience clothing insecurity, and lack of proper clothing is one of the top reasons students miss school.
Pepich was not available for the interview. Her partner, however, made a compelling statement about the passion behind their project.
“My partner and I, we both have younger siblings, and she has nieces and nephews that she’s really close with” said the second student, whose family has not given the district permission for her to be named in an article. “I couldn’t imagine my sister waking up and not having anything clean or not being able to do PE because she doesn’t have the right shoes on for the day.”
They’re collecting clothes at Voyager Elementary and in the community, which they’ll donate at the end of May to Gig Harbor Peninsula FISH Food Bank.
Compassion for sick kids
Junior Jonathan Johansen is part of a team of students whose goal is to gather more than 200 new stuffed animals and deliver them by the end of June to Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma.
“My older brother, Michael, he’s a cancer survivor,” Johansen said. “I’ve always gone to his appointments ever since I can remember, just going to the hospital. And the main thing that I take away from it is seeing the kids there, how sad and lonely they look. So, I knew right away when we decided to do this Passion Project, that’s what I wanted to do.”
Other members of the group are Jonathan Miles, Allie Heilig, Preston Fradet and Elizabeth Tingley. So far, they’ve received about 160 stuffed animals through bins at school and collections in the community.
Junior Jocelyn Gregory, in a separate project, is collecting notes of encouragement for children with cancer at Mary Bridge. Her goal is to deliver several hundred by May 24.
“I’ve had family members that have struggled with cancer, so I kind of see the miracle side of it,” Gregory said. “I’ve always been interested in children’s cancer, and I also want to go into the medical field.”
A little logo with a lot to say
“I knew in elementary school that I wasn’t going to be like the rest of the girls in my grade,” said senior Wren Rioux, who is transgender. “I just knew, like, all the stuff they were doing and what they were wearing, I was like, that’s not me. And in fourth grade, I chopped all my hair off.”
So began Rioux’s outward transition from Adele to Wren. This year, he was selected as a Tides Guy, part of a “mini-frat” whose members pump up school spirit at sports events. Classmates nominated him for homecoming king.
Rioux is comfortable being who he is, but he knows many LGBTQ+ youth don’t feel the same way. For his Passion Project, Rioux has designed a logo for T-shirts, sweatshirts and stickers, the cost for which he’ll pay up front. The symbolism of the logo is, “We’re all the same.”
Staff members and students promise to buy the garb to express solidarity and unity.
“A lot of people think kids in the LGBTQ community want special treatment or they want to be looked at differently or be commended,” Rioux said. “But really, they just want to be treated like everyone else.”
Random notes of kindness
For his Passion Project, senior Anthony Voves is collecting notes from fellow students that express kindness. The anonymous notes will be distributed around school and about town. So don’t be surprised to find words of encouragement on your windshield.
Voves has been busy writing notes to his dad and other members of his family. “’I’m thinking about you. Hey, I care about you.’ It’s a daily checkup,” Voves said.
He wanted to expand the idea and magnify the positive feelings experienced by both the note writer and the person who receives it.
“It’s so much easier to be happy and kind than to try to bring someone down. Like, why do that?” Voves said. “Life is short.”