Alternative 'pioneers' get their hard-earned diplomas


Staff writer

Truman Center is known as Federal Way’s alternative high school — offering non-traditional teaching methods — and its seniors were called pioneers during their graduation last Friday.

Some of the graduates had overcome great obstacles — such as being homeless, substance abuse, and family strife — to graduate with high honors and earn full college scholarships.

Principal Pam Morris-Stendal told the seniors, “This is your day. You’ve been the pioneers.”

All of them received scholarships, and all of them had been accepted to college or were in the process of applying to college.

Nine of the 11 graduating seniors attended the ceremony, and each spoke about their Truman experience. One senior was absent due to an illness, and another had graduated in June and was at military boot camp.

Amber Mullerleile turned 19 on the day of the graduation. “My mother was worried I would never make to my 17th birthday. But today is my 19th birthday, and I made it,” Mullerleile said.

Mullerleile was homeless for a while and abused methamphetamine, marijuana and alcohol. With the intervention of the staff at Truman, she got clean through an intensive outpatient program.

Mullerleile credited her Christian faith, her mother’s support and the school for her turnaround. She said she was grateful to her advisor, Mary Ann Arens, for convincing her to apply for a Gates scholarship.

Arens said Mullerleile used to skip class but started showing up when she learned she had the chance to go to college. Her essay won her a five-year Gates scholarship.

Mullerleile plans to study political science and law at St. Martin’s College in Lacey.

Vincent Vallejo transferred to Truman from Decatur High School before his junior year. Vallejo said Truman helped him improve his public speaking skills and learn foreign languages. In addition, he wrote a 91-page autobiography during senior year for a school project, and he is considering publishing it.

Vallejo was the first high school student to intern at the forensics lab of the Pierce County Sheriff Department. Also funded by a Gates scholarship, he plans to attend St. Martin’s and study forensics and criminal justice.

Mandi Zentzis, who is bound for Piece College and plans to study forensics, told her peers that graduating from high school was priceless. She overcame obstacles that included her parents’ divorce, and she thanked Morris-Stendal and her advisor, Mark Moody.

Kimo Sylvester, who plans to study radiology at Tacoma Community College, said Truman’s staff helps students succeed.

“They care. They don’t pretend they care. It’s all real,” Sylvester said.

Morris-Stendal said the staff “made a commitment that each child is an individual and (should) be valued. They put the kids first and not the content or subject matter first.”

Morris-Stendal said Truman’s alternative teaching method encompasses an individualized curriculum, no traditional classrooms, emphasis on the Socratic method and emphasis on internships. But, she said, “This is not a dumping ground.”

Six other officially enrolled seniors did not graduate last Friday, Morris-Stendal said. Two students opted to do Running Start, one had health issues, one is a parent, and others simply didn’t meet the Essential Academic Learning Requirement (EALR) to graduate. Morris-Stendal said she expects all of the seniors who are not in Running Start to graduate by December.

Staff writer Elizabeth Ciepiela: 925-5565,

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