At Altoona, ‘everything just works’

To many who never set foot inside Altoona Area High School, stereotypes are conjured of a gritty, urban institution where both gangs and drugs are prevalent.

And when a rare story is newsworthy — like students making poor choices at a basketball game last year or the rumor of a shooting this past month — it only reinforces those opinions.

But from teaching at AAHS since the early 2000s, I cannot begin to tell you how far those perceptions are from reality.

We have amazing students who are without a doubt our school’s and community’s biggest asset. Our population is diverse, arriving each day from a wide variety of homes, with a full spectrum of needs and abilities.

And yet, everything just works.

Altoona goes years straight without a serious racial issue. Gay students are comfortable simply being themselves.

While other high schools across the country were embroiled in debate over transgender issues, AAHS quietly designated a bathroom for our handful of students who identify as transgender, and everyone was accepting.

Everything just works.

Our special needs population is massive, employing a small army of professionals from aides working one-on-one with students, to autistic support classes where many students learn valuable life and work skills up through age 21.

The majority of our regular education classes see an influx of special needs students, and their peers are the model of acceptance. A current student uses a wheelchair and then transitions to an assistive walking device. It is difficult and hard work for him in the hallways. I have watched up to seven AAHS students standing patiently behind him while the student makes his way into class.

They respect his strength and do anything they can to help him.

This respect extends to teenage mothers, who bring their children to AAHS’s day care every school day. Here they receive support from excellent teachers and learn the nuances of parenting.

Child care classes are open to the student body, who receive hands-on experience with children while their parents work to earn their diplomas — a first step toward being providers for years to come.

You expect students to make fun of these young mothers pushing strollers out of the building along with their school books, but they don’t. They respect their fight and drive to still succeed, holding doors for them on their way out.

Everything just works.

Many students trudge into school from home lives that are not ideal. Altoona has a high percentage of low-income and single-parent households. Students fall asleep in class because they often work jobs after school to help make ends meet. In such homes, education is not always emphasized, and life is more challenging.

But even here, the parents in our community are amazing teachers of our students, showing them how to accept others and be quality people.

I have taught at AAHS for 16 years and always consider our students a blessing. And this current group of senior high students may be the best that I have ever seen.

I encourage anyone who has never set foot in our building to schedule a visit and see our school in action. These students can teach us adults to look beyond our differences and work together.

Altoona Area High School is a place where everything just works, and it is a phenomenal sight to see.