Graduations are milestones for every family. In Cooper Landing, this year’s graduation was also a milestone for the community.
Linnaea Gossard became the Cooper Landing School’s first high school graduate Monday night, almost a decade after the K-12 school opened to high schoolers.
It’s one of the smaller schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
Most kids who grow up in the area go to high school at one of the bigger schools, in Soldotna or Seward.
“Well, with my dad as the teacher, it was kind of a given that I was going to stay,” she said.
She added: “I didn’t want to get up early and travel an hour.”
The Cooper Landing School has just one teacher — Linnaea’s dad, Tom Gossard. He teaches all 11 students including Linnaea’s younger brother, Cooper. The building itself, nestled at the foot of the Kenai Mountains, has two classrooms and a gym.
“She’s going to be the first high school graduate from Cooper Landing High School. She’s not going to be the last one,” Gossard said.
Her graduation was held Monday night, and Soldotna teacher Rob Sparks spoke at the ceremony.
Linnaea’s trailblazing is more than just symbolic. In early high school, she became interested in video telecommunications and co-created a VTC program for the district, making it possible for remote students like herself to take synchronous courses not offered at their own schools.
Linnaea has taken classes with 16 teachers from eight different schools, all without leaving Cooper Landing.
That wasn’t always possible. And for a while, Cooper Landing didn’t even have a local option for high schoolers.
Before the late 1980s, high schoolers from the area boarded in Seward. Then, some parents pushed for a bus that took students to Soldotna.
That’s when Linnaea’s mom, Virginia Morgan, was in school.
“In those days, we did not have so many second home families,” Morgan said. “This was not a vacation place like it is now. So in those days, we had about 40, usually between 20 and 40 kids, K through eight.”
As Cooper Landing became more of a seasonal community, there were fewer families who lived there year-round. At some point, there weren’t enough kids to justify the bus to Soldotna.
Morgan said parents started pushing again for a local option when a Cooper Landing family with a high-school-age kid was reluctantly considering moving to a bigger community.
“It was 2012 when it became a K-12 school,” she said.
She said it was initially challenging to connect kids with classes in other schools since remote learning was still relatively new. A lot of educators became more proficient in the style of teaching during Linnaea’s era, and more still honed those capabilities recently during the pandemic.
For Linnaea, remote learning meant she could stay in school in the place she loves.
“I really like the community involvement in Cooper Landing,” she said. “But then having the classes at a bigger school, like Soldotna High School and Kenai High School and Seward High School, I was able to have classes with other teachers other than my dad. And then also meet students my age, because I’m the only one my age here.”
Besides the Gossards, there are two other high-schoolers who live in Cooper Landing. They both go to Soldotna High School.
Linnaea said it was sometimes hard as friends moved away. But she doesn’t think she would have had the flexibility at a larger school to build the VTC program or volunteer in town in a myriad ways.
Now Linnaea’s leaving Cooper Landing with certifications in VTC skills, statewide recognition for her VTC work, and several awards and scholarships under her belt. She’s likely going to work with the district to train a new director for the VTC program. This summer, she’ll be in Fairbanks for the Rural Alaska Honors Institute — an introduction to college for kids from rural Alaska and Alaska Native students.
And, of course, Linnaea was the school’s valedictorian.
Principal Doug Hayman acknowledged it was a bit tongue-in-cheek.
“But as you have heard this evening, she would have stacked up anywhere in the world,” Hayman said.
Linnaea’s headed up to Anchorage next year. She plans to study communications at the University of Alaska Anchorage, though she’s not dead set on any major yet.