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News >  K-12 education

Giving back: Rogers High School alums return as employees to help students

Feb. 23, 2021 Updated Tue., Feb. 23, 2021 at 1:57 p.m.

Khalil Winfrey kept his promise.

A sprint champion at Rogers High School, Winfrey was on the fast track out of Hillyard with a scholarship to the University of Washington.

But before he left for Seattle in the fall of 2016, Winfrey paid a visit to the office of Rogers Principal Lori Wyborney.

“I’ll be back,” he told her. “Because I want to help these kids.”

Winfrey has been doing just that since January, when Wyborney hired him as an academic support specialist.

“He’s already making such a difference,” Wyborney said.

So are at least 20 other Rogers alums who are back in the halls they left behind years and decades ago.

Natalie Sarria-Wiley, class of 2004, works as a mental health therapist, helping kids see “that there’s someone believing in you and supporting you.”

Matt Bland, a 1995 graduate who had every reason to never return, is a social worker who understands that for many, “school is the only place where there is a caring adult.”

And in 1991, 25 years before Winfrey, a young state wrestling champ named Shawn Carney worked his way through Eastern Washington University. Now he heads the science department at Rogers.

Asked why he returned, Carney replied, “I don’t think I ever left.”

None of this surprises Wyborney, who joined the Rogers staff in 2007 and has been principal since 2010.

“I’ve been in this business a long time, but this community, with all the struggles, you feel so connected to this place, this building,” Wyborney said. “If you talk to any of these people, they wanted a pathway back.”

• • •

“Once they know that you care, they will listen to you that much better.” – Shawn Carney, Class of 1991, Science department head

Hillyard was a different place in the late 1980s, when Shawn Carney came of age.

“We had that tough, blue-collar mentality,” said Carney, who grew up in a family of Kaiser workers and Rogers graduates.

His parents graduated in 1968, then his dad became a union electrician at the Mead smelter.

He earned enough to allow Shawn Carney’s mother to stay home and for Carney to go out for football and wrestling. A state champ at 178 pounds, he “dabbled” with the idea of playing football at Puget Sound, until he saw the cost of tuition.

“I also didn’t know what I wanted to be,” said Carney, so he worked nights and “dragged my butt to school – I definitely wasn’t on the four-year plan at Cheney.”

After graduation, he worked as a long-term substitute teacher at Shaw Middle School and Rogers before being hired as a wrestling coach and science teacher.

In the last three decades, Carney has seen first-hand the effects of economic decline, especially from the closure at Mead.

“It’s harder to be working class and survive, more so here than in some of the other middle-class areas,” Carney said. “Along with that comes some of the other issues.”

Carney didn’t need to name them, but poverty, drug abuse and homelessness aren’t going away.

“That’s the biggest thing, is trying to help students escape the cycle of poverty,” Carney said. “Sometimes it can be financial, sometimes emotional, but getting out of that cycle is challenging.”

For Carney, the top priority is to “make sure they know that you care. Once they know that you care, they will listen to you that much better.”

• • •

“For me life was much like other kids: faking it until I could make it.” – Matt Bland, social worker, Class of 1995

After enduring a dysfunctional home life, Matt Bland could have been the last candidate to return to Hillyard.

Yet he lives on the same block where he grew up, works at Rogers as a social worker and revels in connecting students and families to resources they didn’t know existed.

Bland speaks from experience.

Bland was 10 when his parents divorced, a few years after his father lost his job at Kaiser. His mother struggled with opioid abuse, and Bland struggled with the abusive new man in her life.

“I had to grow up pretty fast,” said Bland who got his four younger siblings into foster care his sophomore year and was living at the homes of friends.

At Rogers, life was “much like the other kids’ – faking it until I could make it,” recalled Bland, a Native American.

He also had pride, and it was tested early.

Long before there was a name for it, lunch shaming was happening at Rogers. Bland recalls his home room teacher standing in front of the class and asking those who qualified for free and reduced-price means to “please come up here and get your paperwork.”

Faced with a choice between humiliation or hunger, Bland chose the latter.

“I didn’t eat for two weeks, and I was playing football,” Bland recalled. His mother ended the ordeal by suggesting that the school handle the meals without shaming kids.

Bland graduated and left for the Marines, but was pulled back by his mother’s worsening situation.

“I got her back in housing, and to this day she’s been stably housed,” Bland said. “For me that was a win.”

Bland went on to more victories: a master’s degree in social work at EWU, followed by stints at Child Protective Service and the Native Project before Wyborney hired him six years ago as a social worker.

With students learning at home during the pandemic, outreach has been more important than ever. Every day, Bland checks in with 20 seniors – “my group,” he calls them – plus another five to 10 families.

Bland knows what they need, and what they don’t need.

For many kids in Hillyard, the pandemic is life as usual, Bland said. The lack of money, lack of activity and being stuck at home with younger siblings – “Our kids are used to that,” Bland said.

What they need during the pandemic is to see a face – friendly but not fake.

“Neither of my parents ever asked to see my homework,” Bland said. “But at school, most of the time there was a caring adult – that’s why I’m here, and that’s why I feel compelled to serve.”

• • •

“I want to instill that hope, that resiliency, and get them back to feeling good.” – Natalie Sarria-Wiley, Class of 2004, mental health therapist

Natalie Sarria-Wiley was a sophomore at Rogers when she found her place.

It was located at the intersection of idealism and reality; in her case, she couldn’t have one without the other.

“We didn’t have much,” recalled Sarria-Wiley, the daughter of a single mom who often worked two or three jobs. “But that was my dream, to come back to Rogers and make a difference.”

Sarria-Wiley worked hard while her friends “went in a different direction.” She played soccer, ran track and made the cheer squad.

She went on to study at EWU and Central Washington, earning a master’s degree in psychology in Ellensburg. Her academic focus was the academic aspirations of marginalized groups.

“What I found was that the determining factor, the most important factor, was mentorship,” Sarria-Wiley said. “That the student knows and believes that the mentor believes in them is the most important thing.”

After earning her master’s in 2015, Sarria-Wiley worked at her old neighborhood school, Longfellow, before moving to Rogers three years later.

As a Black woman, she soon became an object of curiosity at Rogers, where she recalled “a lot of faces were popping in the office.”

“Seeing me gives them hope,” Sarria-Wiley said.

Now the loss of face time during the pandemic has forced her to get creative.

“I go out to them, make sure they get computers even if I have to deliver it myself,” Sarria-Wiley said.

And despite the restrictions of the pandemic, she’s gotten close enough to find out who’s getting basic health care and hygiene, down to making sure her students have toothbrushes.

On an even more basic level, she’s working to connect families with housing – an urgent need as the clock ticks toward the end of restrictions on rental evictions.

“She has a really deep understanding of the crisis and trauma that our kids go through and she’s able to reach out to them,” Wyborney said.

• • •

“I tell kids that I’m here for them, that they have my support.” – Khalil Winfrey, Class of 2016, academic support specialist

Khalil Winfrey can relate to high school students because he’s walked the walk.

As a freshman at Rogers, that meant a hike to the counselor’s office and “having conversations that I needed to get it together,” Winfrey said.

Crediting former assistant principal Brett Hale for a transformative sophomore year – “piecing everything together and getting my mind right” – Winfrey found success on the football field and the track.

A wide receiver, he was the offensive player of the year in the Greater Spokane League as a senior in 2015. He also won multiple league sprint titles before finishing second at state in the 100 meters.

More important, he won in the classroom, graduating with a 3.4 grade point average and becoming the first in his family to go to college.

A cynic might have written off Winfrey’s promise to return as teenage naiveté. He had every reason to never look back.

Wyborney knew better, especially after Winfrey stopped by at every opportunity to say hello and renew that promise.

“Coming home, heading down Sunset Hill and seeing Spokane … it was always home,” Winfrey said.

After Winfrey earned his bachelor’s in communications, Wyborney said she and her staff “were thinking about how we could use him.”

After a few COVID-19-related delays, Winfrey was finally home and helping students as an academic support specialist.

“With these kids, he knows about their situation and where they come from,” Wyborney said. “He can talk the language and walk the walk.”

During the pandemic, he’s put his degree to work. Winfrey communicates with students via email, and phone, “reaching out to those who need it most.”

Winfrey focuses on students who have checked out of distance learning, failing three more classes. “That’s the biggest thing right now,” Winfrey said.

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