East High: America's Most Culturally Diverse High School
Tracy Kennedy-Jodwalis on Being a COUNSELOR at america's most culturally diverse high school
By Sam Davenport
Photo / Young Kim
Tracy Kennedy-Jodwalis’ office is a mix of comfort and clutter. Graduation announcements of past students cover the border of her window and tassels of East High School graduation caps line her wall like an art piece.
Tracy’s desire to help others stems from a job in retail so many years ago. When the Jay Jacobs in the Fifth Avenue mall opened, she was a manager working on her graduate degree. That job exposed her to all walks of life and people with the same struggles, like substance abuse and financial issues.
“I found myself being drawn to trying to help people,” Tracy tells me.
Tracy is entering her 25th year as a counselor at East High, the most culturally diverse high school in America. I sat down with her to talk about the diversity at her school and the concoction of cultures in Anchorage.
What about East do you think makes it the highest ranked high school in the country in diversity?
We have probably over 60 to 70 different cultures. People think, “What? How can you do it?” But there’s cultures within cultures. Yes, we have the Island Pacific, which means we have Samoan, Hawaiian, all different kinds. We have so many different cultures and languages spoken. It’s increasingly gotten more diverse as the years go on. Per capita, the white students are the minority.
How has that changed over time?
When I first got here, it was very important for the school officials to accept and grasp the diversity. We had workshops and stuff like that. Now, it’s just a norm. Originally, we really had to work to make it become comfortable with everybody, and now it’s just how it is.
What does a typical day in your job look like?
There’s no such thing. It’s what I think a fireman has to do, it’s just constantly putting out fires. You never know what’s going to come through your door. It can be anything from a student changing a schedule to a fight that’s happened to a teacher freaking out and throwing a chair. You never know.
How does your day compare to a counselor at a school with little or no diversity?
That’s hard for me to answer because I’ve never worked at a school that doesn’t have diversity. I believe that people are always going to be people, and kids are always going to be kids. However, I think that diversity makes it just a little more rich, and you have to be a little more savvy about what you’re dealing with. It’s not just dealing with the kid issues, but with the cultural or language issues. I’ve never done it, so I don’t know.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
When you see these kids outside after they’ve graduated, or out in the community, and they’re enjoying life and doing okay.
What are the challenges that come with working at a culturally diverse school?
It's not just the diversity, our city has changed drastically. A lot of people don't want to address that issue, a lot of people don't want to. We are an inner-city school, in my opinion, and our teens right now have a much more difficult time and age to grow up in. Our city is now as close to an inner-city as Alaska has. We are compared to Bakersfield, California and Spokane, Washington. The issues in Anchorage include all the issues these sister cities have, such as gangs, crime waves, gun issues, etc.
Tell me about a specific instance when you saw diversity firsthand.
I see it every day, every hour. One incident I can share that happened recently was a ninth grade student who was obviously new to East, but also new to Anchorage, was speaking to me when he noticed several young ladies walk by with Burqas on. He looked completely fascinated. He then said, “wow, I have never seen that in real life!”