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Welcome everyone to the next episode of Provo City School District’s “What’s Up With The Sup” podcast. I am Superintendent Wendy Dau. We have a great episode this week. I am talking with Rhianna Russell, a student at Independence High School. She will be talking about all of the great programs and opportunities at Independence High School, as well as talking about her Native American heritage.
I will also be talking with Principal Jacob Griffin, who will discuss with us why Independence might be a great option for many of our students here in Provo City School District. But first, we can’t forget our updates. Here we go.
- September 15th through October 15th is Hispanic Heritage Month. I hope you will stay tuned for a future podcast episode where we talk with one of our LIA groups at one of our secondary schools.
- A reminder that the contest for students to design a find your swing pin is officially here. Students can submit their best artwork representing the find your swing theme from the book, The Boys in the Boat, to have a chance to have their design be on the pin. Artwork can be turned into the student’s school’s main office by Wednesday, December 13th, 2023.
- This is the last week to apply for free and reduced lunch meals for school. This process needs to be completed annually within the first 30 days of school. If you have questions about how to do this, please contact our child nutrition department or visit our district website where we have a step-by-step guide on how to apply.
- The next school board meeting will be an all day meeting on Friday, September 29th. Meetings like this are all day study sessions and they allow the school board to discuss items in a little more detail.
- The meetings are open to the public and broadcast on YouTube.
- The Foundation’s Links for Kids Golf Tournament will be held on September 28th. If you are interested in participating, please visit foundation.provo.edu. And you might find me riding around in a golf cart on that date if you want to come and hang out.
- Weekly video cast from the superintendent every Friday. Look forward to one coming this Friday.
And now a shout out to United Way. They sponsored our day of caring and provided several different projects at different schools. Some of which were fixing up playgrounds. Others were volunteering in classrooms. We just very much appreciate our great relationship with the United Way here in Provo City School District.
Also a shout out to student Eliza Doxey. She is a Timpview high school senior and student body president, and she is America First Credit Union’s scholar athlete.
And now let’s get to our podcast for today. Our guest today is Rhianna Russell. She is an 11th grade student at Independence High School. She is active in the community with Indigenous and Native American events. She may be a little bit shy, but she also has a lot of important things to say, and to share with us. She has participated in sports and other groups at Independence. She is very thoughtful and thinks deeply about things. Last year, she and another student worked hard on a podcast on an issue that was important to her and to her Native American community.
We also have Jacob Griffin, who is Independence High School’s principal. He is the one that connects us with Rihanna Russell, and has some great insights as to why Independence High School might be a great choice for many students.
Wendy: Thank you and welcome Rihanna to our podcast.
Rhianna: Thank you.
Wendy: So first, tell us about your experiences in school prior to you coming to Independence High School.
Rhianna: Okay, so at Provo High, my number one struggle was going to class and being there every day. And the number one reason why it was hard for me to show up to class was because I’m a very anxious person and it’s pretty hard for me to be around a lot of people and to socialize and stuff like that.
Wendy: Was it, um, like in the hallways it was really a struggle or even in classrooms because there were just a lot of students?
Rhianna: Both, but mostly the hallways.
Wendy: Yeah, that’s really hard when there’s just a ton of students.
Rhianna: Yeah, I would always hide out in the bathroom and wait until like the bell rang or, yeah.
Wendy: Yeah, so tell us a little bit about what you really like about Independence High School. So you came here and what has really helped you being a student here?
Rhianna: So I really like that all my teachers, they encourage you. They’re always there whenever you need them. And it’s more of a one-on-one learning. I feel like here, you’re not afraid to ask your teachers for help.
Wendy: Yeah. That’s awesome.I love that.
Rhianna: And you’re not afraid to communicate with them.
Wendy: Let me ask a follow up question with that. So how big are your classes at Independence? How many students are in your classes?
Rhianna: So I’d say there’s up to like 15 kids in a classroom. Yeah. 15.
Wendy: So a lot fewer. Yeah, so a lot fewer. Okay, so does that, that helps you so that you can ask the teachers more questions and you get to know the students better.
Rhianna:And feel more comfortable.
Wendy: I love that. That’s great. How would you describe this school independence as a whole? Like, What, what’s really different besides the number of students and your teachers are caring about you. Obviously, teachers care about kids no matter what school they’re at, but it’s a little bit easier if I have smaller classes, but tell me what’s different.
Rhianna:I think that there’s really no problems.
Wendy: So you don’t have a lot of conflicts.
Rhianna: Yeah, we, there’s no, there’s not a lot of drama. And if there is, then it’s like, I don’t know, I feel like it goes away fast. Yeah.
Wendy: That makes for a much safer environment for you. Yes. That’s great. So tell me about some of your teachers. Who have been some of your favorite teachers or what are your favorite subjects and why?
Rhianna: I really respect and I like all my teachers, but I really appreciate John, Alice, Russell, who was my teacher last year, Bryce, and Colonel. Um, those are… Some of my teachers that I highly respect.
Wendy: And tell me what they did in a classroom to help you just feel really welcome, or you love the learning, or there were great activities that happened. What was it about their classes that just made a huge difference for you?
Rhianna: I really appreciate Alice because she always makes the class fun. She calls herself awkward, but um, but I love it. Like her personality is amazing. And she’s always, um, there to, like, help you and encourage you.
Wendy: That, and that becomes really important, right, to help you keep going, to have that encouragement. That’s great. Tell me how Independence has helped you get back on track. So you weren’t going to class at your last high school. So tell me how Independence has helped with that and what your progress is towards your graduation.
Rhianna: When I first came here and met like the vice principal. He was very encouraging on, like, how, like, the classes were and how the teachers were. So, I was a bit excited because it seemed like a comfortable place. I heard things about Independence. When I came here, like, those were lies, you know. When I started going to class here, I felt more comfortable. I wasn’t afraid to, like, raise my hand or communicate with my teachers. I think that really helped me, just communicating and having my teachers and feeling safe.
Wendy: Tell me a little bit about how you had that process of getting back on track with your credits. So, do you get to take more classes? Did you get caught up over the summer? What does that look like and how did people help you with that?
Rhianna: So… At first, like, I would just, I don’t know, do my work in class, try to get things done because I was behind. And I went to summer school after my freshman year and, and that really helped me. That caught me up, like, right away. And so I was on track.
Wendy: So that makes a big difference, like the sooner you can get caught up.
Rhianna:Yeah. Just doing your work makes a big difference in being there.
Wendy: Yes, it does, so you don’t keep falling behind, right? What do you feel like you would want to share with other students about Independence High School?
Rhianna: I’m very grateful for all the teachers that are here, and I think they’re, they’re very amazing.
Wendy: That’s great. So you want students to know what a welcoming environment it is because of the teachers. That’s incredible. I’m so glad to hear that.
Rhianna: And our principal as well. He is very kind. And our vice principal.
Wendy: You have a great administration, don’t you? And, and do you talk to them frequently?
Rhianna: Oh, um, yeah, I do. I’d say I do.
Wendy: So not like because you’re in trouble, but because they have a relationship with you, right? That’s great.
Rhianna: Yeah, that’s what I also like. Our principals have a pretty good relationship with us.
Wendy: And you can see that, like, even when I come into the school, you can see they know students by their names and…
Rhianna: I would also say the same things with, like, all of our teachers as well. That’s great.
Wendy: So I want to talk for a minute – about, you’re Native American, Rhiiana.
Rhianna: Oh, yes, I’m Native American.
Wendy: Yes, tell us a little bit about what tribe you come from and your identity and, and how that fits into all of this.
Rhianna: Okay. My mother is Diné. And my father is Yavapai Apache and Chemehuevi. And being Native American is something that really strengthens me as a person and keeps me going. Because yes, it is my identity and it is who I am. Being Native American is something that I really take pride in because it is my identity. It is how I represent myself as a person and how I lay myself out. As a native, I try to respect myself and respect others around me and be kind because that’s who I am. I’m indigenous and I think it’s important for me to, um, represent my people because there’s not a lot of us around here and I just think that it’s important. I really try to educate the people around me, like my friends and my teachers about, like, our problems and the things that go around. Or pretty much anybody I talk to or anyone I can have, like, a good conversation with, it always fits in and they always understand.
Wendy: So tell me a little bit about some of the events or things that you were involved with in your community because of your Indigenous heritage.
Rhianna: Some of the things I’ve been involved with was the first Indigenous fashion show in Utah.
Wendy: Tell me a little bit about that. So where did that happen and what were you involved with and…
Rhianna: So it happened at the Leonardo Museum in Salt Lake. I met this artist at this art gallery. And he gave me the resources, and so I contacted them, and they eventually, like, reached out to me, and I was very happy. Because I’ve always wanted to do that. I’ve always wanted to be out there representing and just showing who I am.
Wendy: So in this, in this fashion show, was it showing, for example, like traditional dress from different tribes?
Wendy: Talk to me a little bit about that.
Rhianna: Traditional and modern, like more, um, urban. Like,
Wendy: yeah, can you just like, like, give me an example
Rhianna: As natives, we like to represent ourselves in what we wear because, because when we were put in residential schools, we couldn’t, we couldn’t do stuff like this. We couldn’t show ourselves. We couldn’t, we had to be put away.
Wendy: You had, you had to follow what everybody else wanted you to be like, instead of being who you wanted to be.
Wendy: Do you feel like that that’s one of the reasons why you like Independence High School so much is you really get to be who you, who you are and you can show that every day.
Wendy: That’s great. I heard that you did a podcast a little while ago, so tell me a little bit about this podcast that you did and what you were trying to make people aware of.
Rhianna: Okay, so my podcast was about MMIW, which stands for missing and murdered indigenous women. My goal was, like, yes, it was an assignment, but I did take it seriously because I thought it would be a good idea to educate the teachers and the students around me, like, what What MMIW stands for and what it means. And I think I did that by asking people like if they knew what it meant and like explaining to them what it was about.
Wendy: So tell us really quickly what that, what that is about so that people really understand what the issue is.
Rhianna: So missing and murdered indigenous woman. It has been a problem. Um, since before colonization, and nobody bothers to care or even, even look.
Wendy: Yeah, so that’s what you were trying to make people aware of was this problem, right?
Rhianna: That nobody notices us, and that we’re always in silence.
Wendy: So this was an opportunity for you to make sure that your voices were heard.
Rhianna: Yeah, I took this opportunity very seriously. And I was very happy when my teachers liked their feedback about it.
Wendy: Anything else you would like to share with us?
Rhianna: Just that I’m thankful. Thankful to be here. And to have my teachers.
Wendy: I love that. Thank you so much, Rhianna, for taking this time.
Rhianna: Thank you.
Wendy: Your story is incredible, so thank you.
Wendy: I am here with Jacob Griffin, who is the principal of Independence High School here in Provo City School District. And, Jacob, you had us interview a student, Rhianna Russell, and I just want you to tell us a little bit about Rhianna and why you selected her to be kind of your spokesperson for the school and all of the great things that take place here.
Jacob: Yeah, we have a lot of students who have great backstories and who have things that they’ve experienced and success they’ve had at our school. And when I asked some of my counselors and other people in the office, uh, Rhianna’s name came up multiple times for how she’s kind of thrived and blossomed since being at Independence High School. Rhianna, definitely when she got here was pretty shy and didn’t necessarily want to open up a lot, either to adults or other students. However, sometimes a smaller setting gives kids opportunities to participate. For example, for her, basketball, um, some projects in class where she was kind of forced to meet new people, but also try things that she has always wanted to try that maybe in a larger school she wouldn’t be able to. In one class she was able to complete a podcast with another student on some Native American things that were concerning women that had been murdered and, and some of those, um, kind of bringing awareness to that, which was really great. And she recorded herself and her friend and they interviewed people and they did such a good job. The basketball team she had so much fun. I don’t know if she’s played a lot in the past, but she just thrived there. And… compared to when she got here, she opens up to adults, she talks to people, she smiles, she says hi, and just is a really pleasant student to have here at our school.
Wendy: That was clear in her answers and just her demeanor and everything that she was trying to communicate. It was a real pleasure to interview her, so I appreciate that you sent her our way. I want to give you an opportunity to talk a little bit more about Independence High School and the opportunities that it provides for students. So tell us a little bit about how Independence is different from other schools in our district. And then tell us a little bit about how people can learn more about Independence High School if they have questions about it.
Jacob: I feel like along the Wasatch Front, specifically here in Utah County and Salt Lake County and other counties throughout Utah, the alternative kind of message has changed a lot for the positive and a lot of districts and a lot of schools are helping communities understand that alternative isn’t, you know, for students who are bad or students who get in trouble. It’s different and for some kids better. That’s definitely a message that Independence has grown in the community and that we’re trying to share with the community. Some of those things include class sizes that are more accommodating for students who need a little more attention. Class sizes of 12 to 20, 22, as opposed to 30 to 40, which you’ll see in a lot of high schools. That alone, honestly, helps us do a lot of what we do. Know the kids by name, know when they’ve missed a day, see them in the hall and know them by name. And that helps those who have become disenfranchised with education, feel like someone cares. Um, not saying that other places don’t, but sometimes the sheer numbers make it difficult to give as much care as we want at larger schools. Not only that, but our comprehensive services with social workers, counselors, a food bank, a teen center. We really try to help children holistically, not just with academics. Once again, because we can get to know the kids so well and learn about their backstory and learn about home circumstances, we’re able to provide some of those basic needs they, they have before they can learn and provide those for them so that they can actually come to school ready to participate in what we have to offer.
Wendy: And it’s really clear. When I walk through the halls, teachers are calling the students by name. You’re calling students by name, like. Everybody knows everybody. So it’s a really great feeling here. If I’m a parent or a student, and I’m sitting at my high school and I’m like, this is just, isn’t working for me. How do I go about learning more about independence or possibly enrolling at Independence High School.
Jacob: Yeah, often students will have friends in the neighborhood who have come here or parents hear from other parents in the neighborhood. That’s a big part of how people find out about Independence High School. They’ve had a niece or a nephew or a neighbor who has had success or even a sibling and they’re, it piques their interest. Often a counselor or an administrator who sees that a student might need a different setting, they often suggest it as well, and the student or parent may not know about Independence, but the conversation often starts in the counseling office when a student just needs something different. Lots of parents, uh, are accessing information about our school on our website and also on social media where they can get a feel for what our school is, even if they don’t understand or they have a misunderstanding of who we are, that definitely helps paint a picture of the warm family kind of, close knit environment that we try to provide here at Independence High School.
Wendy: Well, even just following you on social media I was watching like last Friday. You guys did a ropes course I think it was across the Provo River and just the kinds of experiences obviously are a little bit unique and different so talk a little bit about how this school allows that, for that to happen.
Jacob: Yeah, I think our teachers have done a really good job at determining the essentials that students need to learn. Often people complain about how much there is to teach in education that we get from the state. And I’ve tried to give my teachers the allowance to personalize it to the students and truly pick out the most essentials because we have students all over the board from those who have very few credits to those who have a lot, those who read really well, to those who do not. And our teachers have to try and teach all of them in the classroom. So with that comes the opportunity with a smaller space and a smaller school to, you know, get outside the classroom a little bit more and try and utilize the park that’s next to our school. Utilize the campus that we have, um, the natural vegetation, the fields, the Provo River and the Provo River Trail, which are right next to us. One of our teachers takes the kids three days a week riding on the river trail and on some bikes that our school has as the PE class, and I’ve tried to empower them with the understanding that if kids are learning and they’re engaging. And you are teaching those essentials, I want to give you the freedom to decide on your own, how to navigate education for these students, because we need to get them to love learning again, and we need to help them get on track, because a lot of them, like I’ve said, haven’t had success in the past, and sometimes their confidence needs that boost from us.
Wendy: I love how you’re talking about getting them re engaged in school to love learning again. That’s pretty important. And to just recognize that school really is a good place for them where they can be successful. So it sounds like you’re doing a lot of great things and your teachers are doing a lot of great things to support that. There are some misperceptions about the purpose of Independence High. So how do you respond to those? How do you fight against those misperceptions? And what do you want families to, at their core, to know about the school?
Jacob: Yeah, the district, I think, over the last, you know, 8 to 10, 12 years, has done a great job at, um, the secondary level, looking at the whole And trying to use data and programs and processes to identify the students who are at risk and who have not been doing well traditionally. So Provo, Timpview, our school, Dixon, Centennial have worked really hard to identify students who need extra supports. In the past, Independence, at times, teachers might have felt this. Even some of the students and parents might have felt that they didn’t have an option to come here. They were sent here. Throughout the district, that mentality has been shifting, which is great. The application process where students have to apply and want to come, and then they get, each student has an interview with me or the assistant principal to determine fit and to make sure that we can meet their goals and that they can follow the expectations that we have. And as the district has bought into that, as parents are understanding that, as the counselors and admin throughout all secondary are realizing that, you know, Independence is another option for students who want to have something maybe different in their education. It’s definitely helped that perception begin to change. And it honestly puts them on a really good footing when they get here, when they feel like they’ve had a part in choosing that option.
Wendy: I appreciate that you’re talking about that concept of choice. They’re not forced here, they’re not told they have to come here. It really is something that they want to commit to, and they’re setting their own goals as to what they want to do, which is going to inspire that success in them. What makes the staff and faculty of Independence High School so unique?
Jacob: Yeah, there’s a small thing that I think maybe has more of an impact than we think. We go by first names here. So instead of Principal Griffin, I’m Jacob, and instead of, uh, Mr. Polsky, the math teacher’s Josh. And while some people might be like, well, isn’t that less respectful?
For some reason here, it’s kind of been a tradition and It’s been that way since I’ve been here. It, um, adds a little bit more of a relationship, and a little bit more of a leveling, if you will, where the student doesn’t come in already feeling this authoritarian feel by calling people Mr. and Mrs.
That’s a small thing, but I think it, um, has a great impact. And our teachers, when we meet in our faculty meetings, and we have our get togethers with teachers, you know, they really are able to know about the student, not only when they’re in school, but they have great information and understanding about what’s happening at home, what has happened in the past, some of the trauma and maybe they’ve been through we’re able to share that in appropriate ways, of course, so that those teachers are kind of empowered to understand the student better and that then increases their care and their love for the students because when they know more about them, they then feel a better connection towards them.And, I mean, in my opinion, that’s what gets me up every day. As they can feel those relationships and as they can feel that connection, it definitely drives them to do what they do and work so hard, which they do every day.
Wendy: Is there anything else that you want us to know or that you want to share about Independence High School?
Jacob: I honestly just wish that there were more kids who knew about us, and knew that we were an option. I have a feeling that there are, you know, 20, 30, 40 kids who could thrive here that just don’t know about us. And so, if those that are listening, or those that have experienced Independence High School can share what they know about us, that’s the best way to spread our message and to kind of spread who we are here.
Wendy: That sounds incredible. Thank you so much, Jacob. And I’ll keep with that tradition where I don’t refer to you as Mr. Griffin. So thank you, Jacob, for spending time with us this afternoon to talk to us about Independence High School.
Thank you for joining me for this episode of What’s Up with the Sup? As always, all episodes will be posted wherever podcasts and the district website.
If you have any topics or questions you would like us to discuss on the podcast, please email us.
Please don’t forget to join us for our episode next Friday, September 29th. I will be joined by Kirsti Kirkland, our media library specialist at Provost Elementary to talk about the musical that she puts on each year and what it means to the students and community at Provost. And if you remember, the sixth grade students that we interviewed earlier are very excited about this musical.
I will also be joined by a past student, Claire Morera, who has participated in the musical to talk about what the experience was like and how the experience positively impacted her.