Seven years ago Jan Link made a commitment to help 50 middle school students with a program that provided assistance outside of class. Each year in Washington State, about 20,000 students drop out between freshman and senior year of high school. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Determined teacher helps keep students on Path to success

Editor’s note: Teacher Jan Link has a mantra: Anyone can make it, given the right help after the school day ends. After this story, read about a few more of the students she helped.

Juan Guitron: Getting down to work

Breeanna Martin: Figuring things out

Taylor Murgallis: From slacker to honor roll

LYNNWOOD — Her absences were so long and frequent her middle school teachers wondered if she’d moved away.

They continued into high school, where a counselor suggested she consider transferring to an alternative school.

Alexis Martinson pressed on, fighting her self doubts. Despite steep odds, she wanted to graduate with her peers at Lynnwood High School.

From seventh grade through her senior year, Martinson missed 255 days of class, nearly a year and a half of instruction. There were hardships at home, doctor visits, severe abdominal pain and surgery, fatigue, sleep deprivation, a dying grandma in Olympia, a mom who was often ill, and a father who was not around. Many nights, court papers say, Martinson couldn’t sleep because a sibling was getting high with friends inside the Lynnwood apartment.

By her senior year, she was living in Monroe with her grandparents and getting a ride to Lynnwood.

Through all the adversity, the teen knew she had someone in her corner, someone willing to help her in ways her mother could not, someone who could motivate her when she was too tired or discouraged to motivate herself, someone who could navigate the dysfunction.

“I don’t think I could have graduated without Jan,” Martinson said between bites of a grilled cheese sandwich at the Dashing Dutchman’s Deli in Monroe.

Seated next to her was a woman four times her age. Jan Link had stopped by on a showery April afternoon during Martinson’s lunch break from a nearby daycare center.

Over seven years, Link watched Martinson grow from a child into a young woman. She kept tabs on her up close and from afar, in person and online, determined to make sure she graduated from high school. She once stopped by her apartment to find the family wearing surgical masks because of mold. She helped get a brake job on the family car and groceries for a cooking class. She spent many hours on the phone talking with Martinson’s mother, sensing how much she wanted her daughter to make it through school and in life.

In April 2016, two months before graduation, Alexis’ mother died. Pamela Martinson was 48. Link spoke at the memorial service.

Alexis Martinson soldiered on. She didn’t graduate with a pristine transcript, but she gutted it out.

“Most people would have folded but Alexis did not,” said Link, a retired teacher and principal weary of a status quo that allows thousands of students to vanish from the state’s high schools each year. “She is the best example of resiliency that I know. If Alexis can do this, all children can graduate no matter what … if they have enough support.”

And that’s Link’s mantra: Anyone can make it, given the right help after the school day ends.

Far too many don’t, however. She recites the statistics: roughly 20,000 students across the state drop out between their freshmen and senior years, and just 31 percent are expected to earn a college degree.

“Why is this so difficult when it is actually so easy?” she said. “Drives me crazy … we keep losing more students and life just goes on.”

Martinson was one of 50 seventh-graders entering Alderwood Middle School in the fall of 2010 to come under Link’s unrelenting watch. Individually and as a group, they proved more than a grand experiment for her after-school program. To Link, 76, they were a gift, a chance to do something meaningful, even life-changing.

Of the 50, two students moved. Another died the summer before her senior year. The remaining 47 — 22 boys and 25 girls — graduated. Some parents doubt their children would have made it to commencement without the extra attention and they wish their older ones would have had the same opportunity.

Nearly all of the students in Link’s group started college in the fall, including four who are in colleges out of state and 18 others at the University of Washington in Seattle and Bothell.

At lunch on that drizzly April day, Link told Martinson she is proud of her.

The teen cast a sideways glance from her grilled cheese and root beer.

“Nobody would look after us like you did,” she said. “You put your whole life into it.”

Link picked up the check. They walked out into the rain-soaked parking lot and parted ways with Martinson knowing that Link is still watching.

Promising results

Link grew up in the 1940s and 50s reading Nancy Drew novels on a one-square-mile wheat farm on the Palouse. It had been homesteaded by her great-grandfather in the 1800s. Her father worked long hours tending the fields and mending the machinery; her mother was in the barn caring for the horses from morning to night. Link picked up their work ethic and pragmatism.

She retired in 2000 after 36 years in public education. Seventeen years later, the Mukilteo woman is still teaching. She just can’t seem to shake the profession she began in the fall of 1963 with three dozen first-graders at Mark Twain Elementary in Pasco.

She was a principal at elementary and high schools in Oregon and Washington, her last stint in the Edmonds School District.

Her former superintendent, Brian Benzel, recalls two types of school leaders: those who were on fire and those who needed a fire lit beneath them. “Jan was on fire,” he said. “And she hasn’t slowed down.”

Link opened a for-profit tutoring business in Kirkland within a year of retiring. She tutors there Sundays. She also started a nonprofit, Academic Link Outreach, to help students get through high school and enroll in college. For three years, she teamed up with Snohomish County Communities in Schools to offer a twice weekly after-school study table at Whispering Pines, a 223-unit low-income apartment complex in Lynnwood.

In the spring of 2010, she was awarded a three-year, $150,000 grant from the nonprofit College Spark Washington to measure how after-school academic support affects student success in the Edmonds district. The goal was to prepare middle school students to do well in high school. The program was called “Path to College Success.” Her students became known as Path kids.

The grant required that more than 75 percent of the students come from low-income homes. A majority were minorities, many from immigrant families. It was a mix that defied one-size-fits-all labels. Some came from nice homes with two college-educated working parents; others from small apartments and little money. There were high-achievers, average students, self saboteurs and kids who were floundering.

Link knew all too well the difficulty many students have with transitions from elementary to middle school and middle to high school. Learning gaps and weak study habits are soon exposed. She began working with her students as they finished elementary school. She strove to keep parents involved at a time many tend to step back. For six years, she met with them monthly and often brought in a speaker.

Tutoring and study tables to help with homework and to prepare for state and college entrance exams were available at least once a week and sometimes weekends. With electronic access to their grades, Link monitored their progress closely each week and called parents when a D, F or missing assignment would crop up. Parents grew to dread Jan Link’s name on their caller ID.

There were summer camps to get ready for the transition to middle and high school; an eighth-grade graduation ceremony with caps and gowns in the back of a pizza parlor; field trips to universities; help with resumes and college applications; and an emphasis on community service.

Notes, often containing chocolate, were sent to middle- and high-school classes most Fridays for several years. The boys at first studied the fancy handwriting on the envelopes, not knowing who sent them. Some hoped for a secret admirer. The letters turned out to be from Link and her aides, praising them for keeping their grades up.

The grant funding ended after the students’ freshman year. It yielded promising results.

One-third — 16 of the 48 in the program at the time — earned straight A’s on their second semester report cards. Of the 290 grades given to the group that term, 90 percent were A’s or B’s. There were no failed classes. The Path students also exceeded state and district averages on state exams.

“Obviously, any time you have an extra adult who is monitoring a kid’s progress and giving them support, advice or sometimes a good talking to, those kids are going to do better,” said Dave Golden, the Lynnwood High School principal.

Link understood that teachers can have 150 students and counselors 300 to 400. Her role was to support them after the final school bell.

She continued to follow the Path kids through their senior year. As graduation approached a year ago, she told them that she’d hold a raffle in 2020 for all those who graduate from a four-year college on time.

The winner gets her red BMW.

First impressions

Early on, many students didn’t know what to make of Link.

Adam Ali remembers his impressions as a sixth-grader getting ready for middle school. “One of the first things she talked about was now is the time to start thinking about college,” he said. “I thought it was bonkers. I was just a little kid. Now that I look back, she was totally right.”

Ali went to Meadowdale High School and enrolled in Running Start classes at Edmonds Community College. Today, at 18, he is a junior majoring in computer science at University of Washington Bothell.

“I kind of resented her in the seventh grade because I was thinking, ‘Why would you care about how I am doing academically?’” said Jason Ready, who attends the University of Washington in Seattle. “But I think another part of it was in seventh grade I wasn’t about to listen to her.”

He didn’t want homework getting in the way of video games.

In a battle of wills, Ready had met his match. So had many classmates.

Ready tried evasive tactics, even changing the password to his electronic grade account so his parents wouldn’t see his less-than-stellar efforts.

Yet there was no getting around Link. She was tenacious and had access to the grades.

“Once her influence got into the household, it was like a change in mindset,” Ready said.

That change didn’t happen overnight. He remembers his second semester seventh-grade report card was a real dud: Math C-, English C, Orchestra C+, Science B, PE A and an F in social studies.

All of which is hard to imagine now, sitting across the table at the Husky Union Building from the lanky, circumspect UW freshman.

At Lynnwood High School, Ready had perfect grades after an A- in geometry during the first semester of his freshman year. He received top marks on national AP exams in government, biology and calculus, and earned an impressive 2020 on the SATs.

In September, shortly before fall classes began, Ready wrote Link: “When I walk onto the UW campus, I remember that before you came along, I was not on track to even graduate high school.”

Adam Sbai also attends the UW. His roommate is Fesehaye Semere, another of the original 50 students in Link’s program. They received their acceptance letters to the UW in gold-colored envelopes on the same day.

Sbai, whose parents immigrated from Morocco, remembers thinking as a seventh-grader that Link was old enough to retire to Florida, and wondering why she was doing all this.

“So many times Jan would call my mom,” he said. “And my mom would say, ‘I don’t want this lady calling all the time. You have to do good in school.’ ”

Majida Sbai, Adam’s mother, chuckles at the memory. Calls about grades ceased by high school. By then, conversations centered on finding an edge to get into a good college.

There was a time to praise and a time to pester.

“You do not become aggressive or a part of their lives if they are doing fine,” Link said. “Let them grow and be strong themselves.”

Adam’s experience had a ripple effect on his entire family. Majida became a more persuasive parent. She tells her daughters, who are in their 20s, it is never too late to earn a degree. One is at community college; the other is on track to earn her business degree from UW Bothell next year.

Joanna Gonzalez once exasperated her teachers. She often was sent to the principal’s office.

Before high school, Link pulled her aside for a serious talk. It was time to stop goofing around. High school would be tougher than middle school, and college was around the corner.

Link borrowed a passage from “Alice in Wonderland,” the one where Alice was at a fork in the road and asked the Cheshire cat which way to go. He asked her where she wanted to end up, and she told him she didn’t know.

“Then,” said the cat, “it doesn’t matter.”

Gonzalez bookmarked it in her brain. It reminds the 19-year-old daughter of immigrants that she faces choices every day. She needs to know her goals in order to make the right ones.

She’s getting A’s and B’s as a freshman at Shoreline Community College. Her long-term goal is law school. She doubts she would be in college were it not for Link.

Like many of the Path kids, Gonzalez lives with her parents, is a full-time student, and works to pay for books and supplies.

She needed Link’s prodding and candor, with phone calls home when grades dropped and nudges toward tutors or study sessions. Most of all, she needed someone who would encourage her to make choices today with tomorrow in mind.

“You have a student like me who doesn’t care about school and is getting into trouble, and a program like this can change their perspective,” Gonzalez said.

So much to do

The great-grandmother wakes up by 6 a.m. with much to do.

There’s the book — “High School is Not a Dress Rehearsal” — to finish writing, and state lawmakers to convince.

She and a group of supporters are trying to get the Legislature to spend money for middle-school learning labs, an effort to replicate strategies that worked with the Path kids. The labs would be open until 6 p.m. each school day with an independent director monitoring grade books, rounding up students, working closely with families and leading volunteers. The bill asked for $1.8 million over three years for a pilot program. Despite wide bipartisan support, it died in committee.

Link and her supporters aren’t giving up.

The Path kids, some of whom hold back when describing their own accomplishments, get excited to tell stories about Link. She’s someone special, they say. When asked if her program could be replicated in other schools, the answer is a hesitant, “Yes, but … ” They wonder where in the world you could find another Jan Link.

Link’s pitch to lawmakers goes something like this: Children do not learn in the same way or at the same pace, and it is time to do something about that.

It’s a message that resonates with many Path parents, including Laurie Edwards.

One of life’s little mysteries to Edwards is how children, given the same parents and upbringing, can be so different. Jordyn and her older sister, Jasmin, were part of a Lynnwood High School state championship-contending basketball team coached by their father. Both earned college athletic scholarships.

School came naturally for Jasmin, a 4.0 student and the model of self-sufficiency.

That was not the case for Jordyn. Middle school was a pendulum that swung back and forth between good grades and missing assignments. Her parents worried.

“I think somewhere along the line, as many parents can probably attest, you just need some help,” Laurie Edwards said. “Not only were the kids held accountable, but the parents were too. There was someone asking us: ‘What are you doing?’ Jan became like my mother, maybe a grandmother to some of the kids.”

With the extra help and encouragement, Jordyn did just fine in high school and on her SATs. At the end of her senior year, she was honored as one of the Edmonds School District’s 16 student athletes, just like her sister before her.

No guarantees

Michelle Davis rounded up extra tickets for the Mountlake Terrace High School graduation last spring.

She’d learned that some rites of passages are not guaranteed.

Her two oldest daughters struggled in high school. One earned her GED. The other finished up through a high school completion program at the community college.

Neither graduated with their childhood chums, which saddened Davis.

For a time, Davis wondered if her son, Lex, also would miss the chance.

She knew her son and she understood he needed reinforcement beyond what she might tell him.

“Having someone else watching and calling him on it made it a bigger deal for him,” she said. “I’d say, ‘Let’s meet with Jan,’ and suddenly that paper would get turned in.”

There were fretful times. She remembers calling Link when Lex was slipping up early in high school. She needed help. Link showed up at the front door the next day and had a talk with Lex. She’d picked up a bouquet of roses for him to give to his mother. The gesture was touching for the worried mom. Someone understood how hard she was trying.

Watching her son graduate from high school among his peers was a special milestone. Today, Lex is enrolled in community college.

The graduates

Thirty-eight of the original 50 students in the Path program graduated from Lynnwood High School in June.

A 39th LHS student was added shortly before freshman year at the urging of middle school staff.

It wasn’t easy convincing the class’ future valedictorian.

Michael Dinh was at home when Link called. His mom, who immigrated from Vietnam, doesn’t speak much English and handed the phone to her son.

Dinh wasn’t interested. He tried to turn her down. Two hours later, he caved.

“She wouldn’t let me off the phone,” he said. “I thought she was really naggy, and I didn’t understand why she was so dedicated to making someone like me join the club. She’d never even met me.”

By the end of high school, he’d come to accept that what once seemed like nagging was actually caring. Link stayed late into the evening when students needed to study, and she would call Dinh, even when his grades were all A’s, just to make sure he was doing OK. She never gave up on anyone, he said.

Dinh’s dad, an engineer, died when Dinh was in elementary school.

One day, he slipped into a coma and never woke up. Dinh’s mom had to sell their house and they struggled as medical costs mounted. In high school, Dinh worked at a local grocery store to help with bills and pay for his bus pass.

Dinh remembers one evening when his mom couldn’t pick him up from an after-school meeting, and Link gave him a ride home. He apologized repeatedly for needing help. She told him that when she was his age, she had to ask for help, too.

That conversation sticks with Dinh, now 19 and a University of Washington freshman who hopes to get into medical school. If there’s one thing he learned, it’s that everyone needs help at one time or another.

In his valedictorian speech, Dinh celebrated his classmates who made it worth getting up at 4 a.m. to catch the public transit bus so he could make it to school on time for jazz band. He urged them to never give up, no matter what people say about them, and to live a life full of meaning.

Martinson, the classmate who faced so many challenges along the way, was in the procession of black-gowned, gold-sashed students that day. Tears of relief streamed down her cheeks, each a reminder of why Link would not let her give up.

In her mind, she shared the moment with someone she knew would have been crying, too.

“Mama,” she said. “I did it.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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