Typically, the West Des Moines Community Schools highlights a Valley High School senior or two who exemplify the "Valley Standard" through its four A's—Academics, Activities, Arts, and Athletics—for an in-depth feature chronicling their educational path through the district up to the graduation stage.

But the ending to the 2019-20 school year is unlike any other we've experienced in recent memory.

Beginning on March 12 and to this day, our classrooms and hallways are empty as a result of COVID-19. Learning and daily interactions with teachers and classmates relied solely on electronic messages and Web cameras. Big things, like the spring sports season, performances, and Prom, were canceled.

Valley's commencement, however, is set for June 27-28—with rainout dates and backup plans following even those backup plans. Signage and instructional information is already placed at Valley Stadium, this summer's home of the three separate graduation ceremonies. Months of planning and collaboration from school staff and district leadership have led us to this moment in an effort to (safely) recognize, honor, and celebrate Valley's Class of 2020, a final tribute we can all agree these students and families deserve.

We reached out to over a dozen students selected by Valley administration, staff, and teachers as prime-time graduating seniors who best showcased the four A's during their high school and WDMCS careers. Learn more about each student. Dive into their own personal narratives that illustrate their journeys. Read how COVID-19 abruptly altered the closing chapters to their senior years and what lies ahead in their futures, told by none other than the students themselves.

AJ Bleskacek

  • Activities, Clubs, & Teams: Valley Drama and Speech
  • Future Plans: attend University of Northern Iowa and major in Communications and Theater Teaching

Being involved in Valley Drama and Speech made me find my passion in life! I didn’t get to perform in the spring musical and improv. show, but I would still advise future seniors to get involved as much as you can. Thanks to my experiences with Valley Drama and Speech, I hope to one day become a drama and speech teacher!

Hailey Butterwegge

  • Activities, Clubs, & Teams: Tiger Archery Club, Valley Golf, Valley Soccer, Silver Cord
  • Future Plans: attend the University of Northern Iowa and major in history teaching

Every year at Valley was a different experience. Because of the amazing teachers at Valley and WDMCS, I was able to find and grow my passion for photography and interest in history. As I grew up in the district, it helped shape who I am today.

Tiger Archery Club had a big impact on me, I met some of my best friends and learned that I wanted to teach through coaching the younger archers. Another extracurricular that enhanced my time at Valley was Silver Cord. I was able to volunteer with my friends and help the community. — Hailey Butterwegge

COVID-19 definitely shaped my senior year into something completely different than what I imagined. It was more challenging and I missed out on some important senior memories, but I’ll be able to remember walking on stage to accept my diploma.

I would definitely tell future seniors to take advantage of every opportunity you get because it does not always last. Go to Valley games with your friends and the dances. Try out new things and participate in new activities. Most importantly, enjoy your senior year and the time you have with your friends and family.

Gwyn Chilcoat

  • Activities, Clubs, & Teams: HOSA-Future Health Professionals, Interact Club, Jazz Orchestra, Marchmasters (Drum Major), Mock Trial, National Honor Society, Pep Band, Symphony Band (All-State Band and Orchestra), Tri-M Music Honor Society, Des Moines Youth Symphony
  • Future Plans: attend Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts

Valley is where I grew up. Surrounded by diverse peers and caring teachers in rigorous and interesting classes, I learned how to think critically, engage in respectful debate, and learn effectively. I am so very glad that I transferred from private school to WDMCS in elementary school because the most valuable lessons you learn in WDMCS are those you learn from listening to your peers' stories.

The band hall has been my home throughout high school, and band has given me a community to serve throughout high school. I loved being a drum major more than anything I’ve ever done before. No matter how hard my days became, marching band was always a place where I could focus on one thing I love to do, surrounded by people I love to do it with. “Band is my life. HUH!”

To future seniors, get started on college and scholarship applications early. But once you’ve applied, try not to fixate on admissions decisions too much and enjoy your senior year. I wish I had taken the time to celebrate my victories along the way and to enjoy the journey.

Whatever capacity you end up returning to school in, don't push it. Wear your masks, don't go to restaurants, and follow CDC guidelines; you don't want to end up in the situation my class had. College is exciting, but be kind to your future self by creating some awesome memories that you'll be able to look back to fondly.

Isabella Cook

  • Activities, Clubs, & Teams: Eco Club, Model United Nations, National Honor Society, Tri-M Musical Honor Society, Valley Ambassadors, Valley Food Rescue, Valley Singers, Vocalese, Youth Alliance for People's Justice (formerly Iowa Climate Strike), Young Democrats, West Des Moines Library Page
  • Future Plans: attend Loyola University Chicago as a Gannon Scholar in Environmental Studies

As a former Catholic school student, Valley is a school and community younger me couldn't begin to fathom. I remember driving to Valley Southwoods only five months into my first year as a public school student and realizing that, for the first time in my life, I loved the school I attended and looked forward to going every day.

Before entering Valley, I discovered I wanted to dedicate my life to climate change. I started Eco Club, which introduced me to Mr. Reif. He was one of my favorite teachers ever and helped start Valley Food Rescue. Eco Club helped change the conversation more than I anticipated, but there's still so much work to do, Valley, and I hope you will continue doing it.

I would tell future seniors that the world needs young people—do something that matters. I know a lot of people think of senior year as the time to relax and celebrate, but our world is facing traumas and troubles that are certainly tougher than three years of secondary schooling. There is no shortage of meaningful things to do, and if you can't find anything that suits you, create your own opportunities. COVID-19 taught me that being passingly grateful for the life you have isn't enough; instead, wring every golden moment dry of goodness, and savor the golden specks in moments of grey.

Pieces of my character would exist regardless of my choices, but choosing Valley undoubtedly made me a person Catholic school-me would have admired, a person worth waiting for, a person worth becoming. — Isabella Cook

Drew Danner

  • Activities, Clubs, & Teams: Valley Orchestra, Volleyball
  • Future Plans: go to Texas Christian University in Dallas/Fort Worth and majoring in biology on the premed track

I was in WDMCS from grades 6-12, but from the moment I arrived, I felt accepted by the students and staff. I made some of my best memories and friends through Valley and am extremely grateful I was given the chance to attend.

Valley also gave me so many opportunities to expand my education and helped me decide what the best path for my life would be. I met so many friends through volleyball and had some amazing coaches I will always look up to. Playing in orchestra also introduced me to some of my best friends and allowed me to experience the world and different views, especially when we took a trip to China.

The biggest thing I am going to remember about this year is the uncertainty of leaving school before spring break normally, and then realizing there were a lot of people I probably wouldn't see again before I left for college.

Future seniors, go to all the events. While you might be ready for high school to be over, you will miss people in your grade. You don't realize how fast the last year of living at home goes.

Sierra Dorsey

  • Activities, Clubs, & Teams: Valley Track & Field (high jump)
  • Future Plans: go to Simpson College to major in Political Science, minoring in Forensic/Biochemistry; later on, become a personal injury lawyer

My time at Valley has been amazing, I’ve met so many wonderful people, helpful teachers and awesome coaches. After school track was a way for me to clear my mind after studying throughout the day. When I stepped on that track, I felt great knowing that there was competition and a team full of great people and coaches. Even though we had rough moments, we still thought as a team. It taught me that whatever you do, do your best.

Future seniors: Do your best, be on time, and turn in work. Take a chance to meet new friends and join clubs/teams.

It was unfortunate that it had to end this way with the pandemic, but we still made it stronger than ever! That’s why we are Tigers.

Urias Gbarjolo

  • Activities, Clubs, & Teams: Valley Football, Valley Track & Field
  • Future Plans: I have big plans for the future but for now just know that I’m figuring myself out and trying to become the best ME that I can be.

My time at Valley was very different in a good way. The school and people helped me recognize things differently in life and to also pay attention to others behavior. Activities like football and track and field made Valley way better. It helped me build bonds and create memories with all kinds of different people. And that’s something that lasts forever.

The pandemic made most things very difficult. I even lost a few friends, but this pandemic helped me realize a lot of things about myself and society, so I’m kind of thankful for it. But I still hate the fact that the pandemic took my senior track season from me.— Urias Gbarjolo

I would tell future seniors to take advantage of the time you have, make sure you just stay out the way of others, handle your business, and use your resources to your advantage because I promise these teachers won’t let you fail.

Samantha Greene

  • Activities, Clubs, & Teams: Broadcasting Lab, Deep Equity, Democrats of Valley, Football Games, Student Ambassadors, Summer Weightlifting, Varsity Girls’ Golf, Vinyl Club, Youth Equity Stewardship
  • Future Plans: become a Secret Service or FBI Agent

Youth Equity Stewardship at Valley allowed me to meet so many students and staff members throughout the district. It was also insightful to hear the issues of injustice that students and Valley High School face every day, and for us to come together to make change.

When George Floyd was killed and protests around the country broke out, I was able to sit down and think about his life, my life as an African-American woman, and the struggles of the injustice in America people of color face. I have wanted to be a police officer for a long time. But during this time, I realized that my dream of becoming a police officer to make change in the black community and show what a good cop looks like has faded.

It makes me sad and angry as I close out a chapter of my life and open a new chapter that the color of my skin will ALWAYS play a part in where I go and what I do. The color of someone's skin should never hold them back.

My advice to future seniors is to listen to and respect your peers, teachers, and administrators. Because you will build amazing relationships and go far.

Audrey Hronich

  • Activities, Clubs, & Teams: Silver Cord, Synchronized Swimming, Valley Track
  • Future Plans: attend Iowa State University and major in Event Management

I really had a great time through my years through WDMCS but especially Valley. I got to meet so many people and have great experiences that I'll never forget.

Being in track really made my three years at Valley memorable. Having such fun girls to see everyday after school and get a good workout in was one thing to get me through my days. Getting to run in State and Drake Relays the past three years was also something to look forward to. It's so much work to get there and with the help of coaches, parents, teammates, and friends, it's all worth the time, sweat and tears. You felt good knowing you were running and representing Valley.

Knowing that we left for spring break this year and might not go back was the worst feeling. I didn't get to have a proper goodbye to a school that I've basically lived at the past three years. It really disappointed me that I knew track was going to be over when this year was going to be a very good one with all the work going into it.

To future Valley seniors: Really find those close friends and spend time with them; have fun and no worries. That's the best thing that has come into my life, and I am so thankful for it.

Jack Johnson

  • Activities, Clubs, & Teams: Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Prayer Club, Valley Football, Valley Track
  • Future Plans: attend the University of Iowa to study sports management and play Hawkeye football

My experience in the West Des Moines Community Schools was memorable. Nothing is better than being able to spend time with teammates and friends.

Football was a blessing. It gave me a path to my future. I learned through football that perseverance is critical. Continue to work hard, continue to be a good teammate, do the extra, and demand the most from yourself. — Jack Johnson

COVID-19 made our entire class miss a lot. No spring sports and no spring activities will always be a loss our class will have. It reminded me to not take things for granted and to be there for each other.

Act like every day, every sport, every activity is your last. You never know. So just take it all in and enjoy it. Make relationships and have fun.

Animesh Joshi

  • Activities, Clubs, & Teams: History Bowl, Mock Trial, Model United Nations, National Honor Society, Principal’s Advisory Council, Silver Cord, Speech and Debate, State of Iowa Youth Advisory Council, Student Council, World Cultures Club
  • Future Plans: attend Columbia University in New York as a History major; law school or teaching are on my radar for the future

I’ve been in the WDMCS district since kindergarten. I’ve enjoyed my time and learned a lot of valuable lessons. My experience has been shaped by interactions with specific people. I’ve made lasting friendships, participated in a variety of extracurriculars, and have had unique experiences that have broadened my horizons. I’m super grateful, and lucky, that Valley has offered me all of these opportunities that I wouldn’t get elsewhere.

I think speech and debate had one of the largest influences on my high school career. I’ve had some of the most fun experiences with my debate team as we traveled across the country, bonding over antique store pitstops and horror movies.

Outside of debate, my favorite experience was probably International Night. I always went to International Night as a kid—to me, it represented the diversity that I could be a part of in my district—and getting the privilege to be a key part of that as a World Cultures Club leader was an amazing and fulfilling experience.

The onset of the pandemic disrupted a lot of capstone events, but despite all the negativity, there are moments that we can all be proud of—whether it be finding hope in what we’ve done during quarantine or the surge of activism and accountability around the world. It’s these moments that I choose to define my senior year by. — Animesh Joshi

Isabella Ksiazak

  • Activities, Clubs, & Teams: Bakers Dozen Mime Troupe, IHSSA, National Honor Society, Silver Cord, Valley Drama
  • Future Plans: attend Drake University and double majoring in Law, Politics, and Society and Drawing

Going through WDMCS helps teach you skills you will need after you graduate and helps you figure out who you are and what passions you have.

I did Solo Mime all four years in IHSSA. It helped me gain confidence and taught me responsibility and the importance of pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. It also gave me an outlet to do what I love and express who I was in a very unique way of performing. I also did Silver Cord which gave me opportunities to learn more about what is going on in the community and how there are so many different ways to help others. I feel like I found places where I really enjoyed being able to volunteer.

My time physically at Valley seemed to end on a high. Right before the pandemic, I won Critics Choice for solo mime in IHSSA. I was a bit relieved to go online since I felt like it was easier for me to keep up with my classes when I could go at my own pace each day. I think it helped everyone realize they have to be thankful for each moment and opportunity they get because they never knew how fast everything could change.

Future seniors, be patient since things will be different. Help your teachers since they will also have to adjust, and be responsible and smart about your safety and the safety of those around you.

Lily Overstreet

  • Activities, Clubs, & Teams: Best Buddies, National Honor Society, Silver Cord, Valley Girls' Varsity Soccer Team, ODP (Olympic Development Program), Sporting Iowa and Iowa Rush Club Soccer teams, worked at Scheels
  • Future Plans: attend Drake University where I will major in Actuarial Science and play soccer. GO BULLDOGS!

As graduation nears and my senior year comes to an end, I would say my time at Valley mimicked that of a rollercoaster. I encountered a barrage of challenges, both physically and academically, that pushed me to be the person I am today. West Des Moines Community Schools not only gave me the opportunity to thrive both on and off the field, but also provided friendships that will last a lifetime. I wouldn't trade the past 13 years for anything else.

The one extracurricular activity that primarily enhanced my experience at Valley would have to be the Valley Girls' Varsity Soccer team. It was there where I learned to challenge myself on the field and also create friendships that will last a lifetime. The team and the atmosphere majorly contributed to my hard work to become a Division I athlete. — Lily Overstreet

Looking back on this historical moment in time, I will remember to never take anything for granted. I definitely did not picture my final months as a senior to be from the remoteness of my home. Having to learn to cope with the daily changes going on in our society along with having to adapt to online instruction AND not playing soccer flipped my entire world upside down. Not being able to experience senior prom, senior night for soccer, or have a traditional graduation ceremony has taught me to savor moments and memories for the future.

My advice for the Valley seniors to come would be to cherish the little moments; scream a little louder on the final touchdown, stay at the dances a little longer, and challenge yourself harder than you have before because it will ultimately pay off in the end. Continue to push yourself in more ways than you ever thought possible, but also remember to enjoy the little things along the way.

Faith Rafferty

  • Activities, Clubs, & Teams: Jazz Choir, Show Choir, Synchronized Swimming, Valley Cross Country, Valley Girls’ Soccer, Valley Singers, Show Choir, club soccer
  • Future Plans: attend the University of Iowa and major in Mathematics

My time at Valley was a huge learning experience. Not just with academics, but with activities, sports, and friendships.

I’ve learned time management because I would have back-to-back rehearsals and practices along with homework in some seasons of high school. But I would say soccer specifically enhanced my time at Valley because I made some of my best friends through this sport, and I developed a good work ethic.

Ever since I was little, it’s like I was always waiting for the end of my senior year—the time I say goodbye to my childhood and the time seniors get to celebrate our accomplishments. We all still get to do this but not in the way we imagined.

I’ll always remember Class of 2020 and how we stayed positive through this time, and I’ll also remember all of the amazing teachers and counselors who I didn’t exactly get to say goodbye to. — Faith Rafferty

Future seniors, don’t take things for granted. It’s good to have goals but it’s important not to lose sight of what you’re doing in the moment.

Jacob Soto

  • Activities, Clubs, & Teams: A Capella Reign, Baker’s Dozen Mime Troupe, IHSSA, Jazz Choir, Show Choir, Student Council, Valley Cross Country, Valley Drama, Valley Track, Valley Swimming
  • Future Plans: attend the University of Iowa to study Political Science.

I believe every student at Valley should join an extracurricular. Cross country and the Bakers Dozen helped me grow as a student through hard work and creativity.

Enjoy the moment you're in because you never know what will happen. Not having that sense of closure is something very odd about COVID-19. Senior year is supposed to be about wrapping things up. We instead had a very abrupt ending, not giving us the whole experience. I will always remember Landon Denker on the last day before spring break saying it was our last day of school ever.

Reflecting back on my time at Valley is bittersweet. Although I am very excited for the future, I will miss many parts of my Valley experience. When I think of Valley, I remember my friends that I made along the way and the teachers who impacted my life, many of whom are in the arts department.

Trajen Thornton

  • Activities, Clubs, & Teams: Best Buddies, Valley Baseball, Valley Basketball, Valley Football, Valley Track
  • Future Plans: attend Quincy University to play football and study Physical Therapy

High school was a very weird but fun experience. Through football and basketball, I made a bunch of friends that made my high school experience a lot better. COVID-19 ruined the chance of a really good track season, and also just made life just complicated for about three months. Make sure you don’t take anything for granted because once it’s over, it’s over.

Andrew Voggesser

  • Activities, Clubs, & Teams: A Capella Reign, Bakers Dozen Mime Troupe Tech., IHSSA, Jazz Choir, Show Choir, Tri-M Music Honor Society, Valley Drama and Pit Orchestra
  • Future Plans: plan to study Double Bass Performance at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

I met some of my best friends at Valley. The building was full of many extremely nice teachers who weren't afraid to get to know their students and truly cared that their students got what they needed to learn. I had a lot of fun at Valley and will miss it!

A Capella Reign was one of my favorite experiences of high school. I was in the group as a sophomore, so it allowed me to get to know the group’s director and Valley teacher, Mr. Hudson, a year before I had him as my APUSH teacher. He is an amazing role model and helped me to feel welcome at Valley when it was still a little scary. The three years I spent in the group introduced me to many close friends. It was an activity that never got boring.

During the more stressful parts of this year, I would often wish I could just fast forward to college and be done with high school. When all the final competitions and the end of the school year were canceled, it was a huge eye-opener and has taught me in a big way not to take things for granted. As a musician, all the free time has motivated me to practice more and showed me that (as obvious as it sounds) practice really does make you improve exponentially.

Future seniors, make sure you take care of your grades because they do matter, but don't get completely caught up in your school work. Spend time with your friends, especially the ones you aren't that close with, because they are the ones you may not keep in contact with post-high school.

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Created By
Aaron Young & Alexandra Wade | WDMCS School/Community Relations