Two find their way via Crest Learning Center

Escandar Spahi and Damico Rios are two Crest Learning Center students who will earn their high school diplomas tomorrow night.  - Kendall Watson/Mercer Island Reporter
Escandar Spahi and Damico Rios are two Crest Learning Center students who will earn their high school diplomas tomorrow night.
— image credit: Kendall Watson/Mercer Island Reporter

Like surfers catching the “Crest” of a wave, the hard work of Crest Learning Center seniors Damico Rios and Escandar Spahi is about to pay off.

Along with 18 other students enrolled at the alternative school, the pair is scheduled to receive Mercer Island High School diplomas on June 11 and graduate with a plan for their young lives to follow.

Thanks to a community effort by teachers, the students and their families, Spahi and Rios, both 18, are set to follow their own destinies. Spahi, who aspires to write viral-marketing campaigns featuring movie stars, is headed to Santa Barbara City College with plans for a marketing degree. Rios, whom fellow students know well for sharing homemade carne asada tacos with his class, hopes to parlay those skills into a culinary degree from South Seattle Community College.

“I like food,” he said with a smile.

But their choices now are vastly different from those only a year or two ago.

Not long after starting his freshman year at MIHS, Spahi couldn’t shake his dislike of the strict curriculum and wanted more time with his subjects and teachers. He felt overwhelmed as his grades and self-esteem slid down.

“When you’re not good at something, you’re not confident,” he said.

At about the same time at Cleveland High School in Seattle, Rios was in and out of trouble, a D-student and mixing with the wrong crowd.

“I was going through a lot of personal problems,” he said. “No one really had my trust.”

Based on an independent approach to learning, Crest Learning Center gave them the chance to master subjects at their own pace and with as much or as little attention as they needed. But instead of leaving them to their own devices, teachers adopted a strong mentoring role and closely monitored their work. English and Social Studies teacher Gavin Tierney said the approach is intended to foster a strong work ethic, community and healthy relationships with yourself and family members. He said both Rios and Spahi exemplified the qualities of Crest.

“They’re exceptional students,” he said. “But [they’re also recognized] because of their contributions to the community.”

And the community has recognized their strides toward success: Rios was recently awarded scholarships from the PTA, Rotary and Crest’s Linda Holt award for his leadership, while Spahi was named co-recipient of the school’s Founder’s Award, given to the student who has shown the most improvement and independence. Both Crest awards are inscribed with the students’ names at the entrance to the school.

“Coming here was like a breath of fresh air,” Rios said. “I could focus on what I wanted to do rather than who I want to fight.”

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