In the wake of a pandemic loss, a Pocatello student overcame the odds to graduate

There were times when Phoenix Johansen was ready to drop out of high school. 

When the pandemic upended the world, it wreaked havoc for everyone – but especially for Phoenix, who is now 18. 

Because of Covid-19, Phoenix’s school shut down, they were hospitalized, and their mother passed away. In the wake of all that chaos and sadness, Phoenix didn’t feel like going to school and lost the motivation to graduate. 

After all, graduation wouldn’t be the same with Annetta Johansen, Phoenix’s mother, there to throw a party or make a video showcasing photos of Phoenix like she’d done for her older children. 

“I knew I wouldn’t get that so I didn’t want to graduate because the one person I wanted to be there wasn’t going to be there,” Phoenix said.

But, due to their own determination and some crucial encouragement, Phoenix made it happen. On July 5, Phoenix graduated from Pocatello High School, finally getting that diploma.

Idaho’s class of 2022 saw the world upturned by the pandemic when most of them were sophomores. Phoenix’s story is one example of what it’s been like for teens trying to stay on track to graduate when the world seemed to be running off the rails. For Phoenix, summer school, caring adults, a counselor who wouldn’t let them quit, and perseverance made all the difference for them to overcome the odds and earn their diploma.

Phoenix Johansen holds a photo of their mother, Annetta. Photo courtesy of Phoenix Johansen.

Phoenix’s life changed forever on November 20, 2020. That was when Annetta passed away due to complications from Covid-19. 

“That was really rough,” Phoenix said. “I didn’t do schoolwork for a month … I was just surviving at that point.”

On top of their loss, Phoenix was recovering from their own infection with Covid. 

“I had no motivation,” Phoenix said. 

The rest of junior year was a blur, Phoenix said. During senior year, Phoenix fell behind after getting a cold and missing a few weeks of school.

That’s when Daniella Long, a counselor at Pocatello High School, got a message from Phoenix: “I need to know what to do to drop out.”

But Long wasn’t about to let that happen. 

Long and Heidi Graham, the vice principal at Pocatello, made a plan to help Phoenix graduate. Phoenix transitioned to online classes during third trimester, and Long monitored their progress and checked in often. 

When Phoenix fell behind, Long and another teacher drove to Phoenix’s house, picked them up, and brought them to school so they could work in a different environment and focus. 

Even though Long is the counselor for more than 400 students, she still made time for Phoenix.

“I would do it for any one of those 430 kids,” Long said. “There are so many opportunities they can have just from obtaining that diploma. Without it, they’re severely limited.”

By the time Phoenix got to the end of the school year, though, they were still six credits behind. To get caught up, Phoenix enrolled in summer school. And Long kept checking in. 

“She was constantly messaging me in the summer,” Phoenix said. “She was really helpful through the whole thing … I wouldn’t have graduated without her.”

But Long says Phoenix deserves all the recognition for this win. 

“They did all the work, I can’t take any of that credit,” Long said. 

Amy Prescott, the summer school principal for the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District, said the summer classes provide a crucial second chance for those who didn’t graduate in May. 

“There’s a reason every one of those kids didn’t make it the first time,” she said. “We try to provide every opportunity for them to be successful … We know they’ll have a better chance of finding employment and being successful as an adult if they’ve got this diploma.”

Prescott added that it’s especially impressive that summer school graduates push on to earn their diploma even after the big May graduations have passed. 

“It’s no less of an accomplishment than those who finished in May,” she said. “In my eyes, it’s probably harder to stick with it after they watched all their peers finish in May. I’m super proud they stuck with it.”

Phoenix’s July 5 graduation ceremony was for summer school students who had earned credits they’d lacked in May or even from the prior school year. The small ceremony gave them another chance to have the moments they missed – walking across the stage, collecting the diploma, and moving the tassel on their cap from right to left. Johansen was one of nine from various Pocatello high schools in that graduating class.

“It was just nice to be celebrated,” Johansen said. “She would’ve wanted me to graduate … so I’m kind of doing it for her.”

Phoenix’s brother, Jacob Johansen, said he was proud of their achievement.

“Losing our mom was devastating,” he said. “I doubt I would’ve been able to finish high school, even late like that. I’m proud they were strong and made it through.”

For Phoenix, the summer school graduation ceremony was the closing of one difficult chapter and the opening of another. 

Phoenix eventually hopes to move to Coos Bay, Ore., which is just an hour away from where they spread their mother’s ashes on a beach in Seaside. 

“That was her favorite place in the world,” Phoenix said. “That was like heaven to her.” 

Phoenix and their mother, Annetta, at a beach in Oregon. Photo courtesy of Phoenix Johansen.

But Phoenix has one hope for the future that’s more important than anything else. 

“I just want to be happy,” Phoenix said. “That’s all mom ever told us. She said, ‘I don’t care what you do, what your profession is, or if you get married or not. I just want my kids to be happy.’ Being happy would honor her.”


Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Reporter Carly Flandro works in EdNews’ East Idaho bureau. A former high school English teacher, she writes about teaching, learning, diversity, and equity. You can follow Flandro on Twitter @idahoedcarly and send her news tips at [email protected].

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