When Tonya Jo Gruel-Wright entered the Sports Medicine and Exercise Science program at Tolles Career & Technical Center her junior year, it was something of a homecoming for the Fairbanks High School student. She had already received two years of schooling at Tolles—as a preschooler.
“Within my first steps of walking back into Tolles, I had this heartwarming feeling that I was home again,” she said. “It was as if I had moved away from a school and moved back to reunite with all of my old preschool friends.”
Gruel-Wright is not alone; before getting a lift on their careers, many Tolles Career & Technical Center students first get a leap on kindergarten through the district’s preschool program.
“What brings families here is the convenience and low cost,” said Gail Bennett, former early childhood education teacher. “But once they see the value of it, they put their other kids on the waiting list the minute they are born.”
In her 36 years with Tolles, Bennett has seen many preschoolers return as young adults, earning a top-notch education at both ends of the spectrum. Firefighting/EMS student Tyler Toman (pictured above with senior Nick Shuler, another Tolles preschool graduate now in the Culinary Arts program) is one of those preschool graduates. He didn’t remember much from those years, until he gave a tour of the building as a Tolles Ambassador.
“I stepped into the preschool and suddenly remembered where all these different things were located,” he said. “It was cool.”
A senior from Jonathan Alder High School, Toman has high praise for the program. “They are doing great things, and there are lots of one-on-one opportunities. Good friendship bonds are formed between the student and the child.”
That is one of the program’s strengths, Bennett said. “There are a lot of great centers out there, but ours is a laboratory preschool, which offers a better ratio of students to preschoolers.”
Gruel-Wright said she still remembers much about her preschool years and that returning as a junior was an easy decision. “When my junior year approached, there was no question about me going back,” she said. “I knew that Tolles would give me a head start on my career and that it would offer a hands-on learning experience.”
The 2009 graduate went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in Athletic Training and Physical Education: Coaching from Mars Hill University in 2013. Now she’s back at Tolles, substitute teaching while she completes her state requirements for athletic training.
“Returning to substitute teach was a dream come true,” she said. “It showed me that working hard and creating good relationships really pays off, because without all of the positive influence, respect and support from the staff, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”
For Bennett, who retired in June, there was always a sense of ownership in seeing students return. “It’s like having your own child go through,” she said. “You have a sense of pride for them and their accomplishments. To be able to watch it, let alone be a part of it, is neat. We all have a job to do, but it’s the personal connections that make it worthwhile.”