Assembly at Altoona Area High School opens eyes

An Altoona Area High School assembly on April 3 dealing with societal problems will count among the school’s top accomplishments of the 2013-14 academic year. Such an assembly has a place in every school district, and not just as a one-time event.

Altoona High’s assembly was eye-opening, even for veteran educators and school officials who’ve dealt with myriad, diverse issues during the course of long careers. The gathering planted the seed for ongoing discussions to formulate responses to the assembly’s revelations.

If that’s done, some tragic occurrences might be avoided; some young people’s lives might be saved.

“Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh” was the reaction of Altoona High Principal Patricia Burlingame when students, during the assembly, were asked to stand up if they’ve had certain experiences. As reported in the April 4 Mirror, those experiences included being raised by a single parent, having an incarcerated parent, losing family members because of violence or drug and alcohol abuse or seeing their mothers beaten.

Afterward, Burlingame admitted that her knowledge of the percentages of local students coming from homes with various social or economic problems didn’t prepare her for the number of students who stood up in response to speaker Manny Scott of Long Beach, Calif.

The story of how Scott and other troubled Long Beach students were inspired to change their lives was told in the 2007 movie “Freedom Writers.”

If reactions at the assembly are an accurate indicator, the lives of at least some of the local students might already have become more optimistic than what they were prior to that important gathering. At least the students have a better perspective about the societal issues affecting them – the most important one being that many other young people share their feelings, anxieties and sorrows.

Praise should be given to Altoona High teachers Breanne Venios and Meghan Bradley, the assembly’s organizers. They recognized the need for the session, having had students confide in them about suicidal thoughts.

The teachers were able to obtain a grant from the district’s alumni-supported foundation to schedule Scott’s visit. It’s clear that the assembly produced a more positive result than even they might have envisioned.

The assembly evoked a flood of emotions within most in attendance.

Scott reiterated one of the most important points of his presentation during a post-assembly media conference: “I want kids to know they are not alone.”

It is to be hoped Scott put to rest the suicidal thoughts of the students who had confided in Venios and Bradley, as well as those of any other students who might have been thinking similarly. Hopefully, Scott’s personal insight will help prevent other student reactions unproductive to themselves and others around them.

Could the stabbing tragedy at Franklin Regional High School last week have been averted if Alex Hribal had been given access to someone with Scott’s perspective? It’s something to ponder.

After the local assembly, a student described it as “unlike anything we had at the school before.”

The message to the school: A one-time experience this should not be.