As just over 800 Class of 2016 graduates exit Liberty Public Schools in May, we wanted to spotlight two members of this outstanding class, one student from Liberty High School and one student from Liberty North High School. We wish all students the best of luck in whatever the future holds for each of them, and congratulates them on this personal achievement!
Matt Gastner - Liberty High School
By David Boyce
During his senior season on the Liberty High School football team, Matt Gastner injured his shoulder.
The last thing a senior wants in his final year of playing organized football for his high school team is to suffer an injury that causes him to miss games. The injury was severe enough that Gastner was unable to participate in activities in his gym class.
Gastner is healthy now. He plays third and first base for the Liberty baseball team that has emerged as one of the top teams in the state. Gastner is doing so well that he earned a scholarship to play baseball at Northwest Missouri State where he will major in business.
But it was how Gastner responded to adversity last fall that has made his senior year special and one that a number of students in the Essential Skills class will not likely forget in years to come.
The culmination of turning a football injury into a magnificent, memorable evening that the entire Liberty High School student body should be proud of occurred Friday evening, February 5 at a basketball game when the Courtwarming ceremony crowning the King and Queen also took place.
Because of the efforts by Gastner and senior Morgan Fleming promoting Daniel Lehenbauer and Jessica Ballew for King and Queen, the two students in the Essential Skills class won and were crowned at halftime.
Gastner and Fleming brought attention to these two Liberty High students through a Twitter campaign and talking to their friends, urging students to vote for Lehenbauer and Ballew.
“Matt was a huge piece in that,” said Jessica King, Essential Skills teacher. “Matt made posters for my students and hung them up around the school. I am sure he convinced his football and baseball teammates to vote for him. He took care of Daniel when he was on the court and made sure everything was taking care of and that he walked out right.”
The moment made KMBC Channel 9 news, and the story showed how inclusive Liberty students are of everybody. Gastner was one of the driving forces to make the 2016 Courtwarming an unforgettable evening.
It all started because Gastner got hurt in football his senior season. Instead of doing nothing in gym class with an injured shoulder, he was asked by his gym teacher Chad Frigon to help with Deanna Neldon’s adaptive PE class, which was the same hour.
“I met a couple of kids and we played basketball and it ended up that I would go to that class every single day and do the activities with them,” Gastner said. “As my shouldered healed, I still did it the next semester, which led into me coming to this class every day, seventh hour, talk to them and hang out with them.”
Gastner made sure the students he worked with in the Essential Skills class felt part of the high school experience at Liberty. If he saw one of the students at a home basketball game, he brought that student over to the student section to cheer on the Blue Jays.
“I think Liberty High School is an amazing place,” King said. “It is so inclusive of all of my students. They wrap their arms around them and make sure they have a true high school experience like everybody else.”
“Matt does an awesome job making them feel like a regular high school kid, that they are no different. They can participate in things.”
The Essential Skills students also taught him a Gastner lessons.
“I have learned a lot from them, what it takes to get along,” Gastner said. “You never see them without a smile on their face.”
King said the faces of her students light up whenever Gastner walks into the room to work with them.
“He holds them accountable and interacts with them,” King said. “He is a great role model for all of my students to look up to. He brings them joy and they are happy somebody hangs out with them and be silly with them.”
Gastner is having the same success on the baseball team. Liberty has 14 seniors on the baseball team this year.
“We all get along,” Gastner said. “In the summer, we play against each other. Every team we play we know someone on the team. It is always fun to connect with those guys, say hi and see how their season is going.”
The chemistry among the seniors is one of the reasons that has made his final year of high school baseball fun.
For Gastner, the years he spent in Liberty Public Schools have helped mold him into the person he is today. He started at Shoal Creek Elementary and then went to Liberty Oaks Elementary followed by South Valley Middle School and South Valley Junior High.
“I have had a good high school experience,” he said. “I have been blessed with good friends throughout my time here. All the teachers I have had have helped me get through it. Playing sports here, I made tons of connections and friends that will last me through college and into my life. As a senior class, we have all gotten along.
“The Liberty School District I would rank at the top with the teachers and everything. They don’t just teach you, they make connections with you to be a better student and a better person overall. They teach you life lessons.”
Kailee Knudsen - Liberty North High School
"The Epitome of an LPS Student"
By David Boyce
A month before graduation, Liberty North High School senior Kailee Knudsen’s plans for her future were intact. She is going to Southwest Baptist and will major in education. One day, Knudsen wants to teach either elementary students or high school students.
The impact Liberty Public Schools has had on her is profound. She went to Ridgeview for three years, Warren Hills for three years, South Valley Middle School and South Valley Junior High.
“Each building I went to,” she said, “I felt like I was still getting the same support and the same great education. I found people who were really dedicated to their jobs and students who are my best friends. I don’t think you can find a better place to go to school.
“When I grow up, I want my kids to come here. As a teacher, I want to come back and teach in Liberty Public Schools. That is how awesome I think it is.”
In some ways, Knudsen already has the maturity of an adult. Responsibility is needed to be the student council president. Time management is important to juggle softball, basketball and for a couple of years run track while maintaining a high grade point average.
Knudsen also spent four years in the broadcast program, working for KNET. It was an experience that taught her how to think on her feet, talk in front of people. Topics ranged from comical to serious.
“When you are on air and something doesn’t go right, you have to adjust really quick because we do everything live,” Knudsen said. “It takes planning and a lot of time writing scripts and entering competitions. You can use those skills in every aspect in life.”
Knudsen experienced the culture at Liberty North to its fullest. Liberty North counselor Jill Brock summed up Knudsen perfectly.
“Kailee,” Brock said, “is the epitome of a LPS student.”
“She is an all-around great person. She is genuine in her conversations and interactions and that doesn’t just include staff members. It includes her friends, her peers and people she doesn’t know. She gets stuff done in the classroom, but also, she has the ability to add extracurricular on top of her plate and still succeed.”
Knudsen’s optimism is a testament to her character, her religious faith, strong family ties and support from teammates and classmates.
A month before starting her first year at Liberty North, Knudsen’s dad, Ken Knudsen, passed away on July 28, 2013 after a long battle with leukemia. As a freshman, Knudsen divided her time going to South Valley Junior High, playing sports at Liberty North and visiting her dad in the hospital.
Anyone who has had parent who is seriously ill knows how tough it is no matter what stage of life you are in. For a teenager, it can be devastating.
“It was hard,” Knudsen said. “I was out of town when he actually passed away. Hearing that news and knowing you can’t do anything about it was difficult. You are entering a part of life where high school is a major part of trying to figure out who you are, what you want to do. Not having my father involved in that was really hard. We were really close.”
A caring Liberty North community helped her. Lindsey Plaster, the student council advisor and government teacher, gave her an activity to pursue.
“Mrs. Plaster helped me,” Knudsen said. “She reached out and told me to join student council. It definitely helped. I met all of my friends out of the activities. They support me. Even now, they support me. It helps keep my mind off things. Playing softball and basketball are things I love and things he loved so it helps heal the pain and makes it worthwhile.”
Plaster also coached Knudsen in track for two years. Over the last three years, Plaster has watched Knudsen make decisions that impacts students at Liberty North. Knudsen understands the importance of her job as student council president.
“For Kailee, how she lives her day-to-day life and daily attitude and daily actions embody and personify what we strive to develop here at Liberty North as a student leader,” Plaster said. “Someone who puts academics first. She is in school for the right reasons, to take advantage of the learning environment. But the learning environment for someone like Kailee extends well beyond the classroom.”
Knudsen is proud of the senior class she is a part of and the experience she had at Liberty North High School.
“I love being able to walk in the halls and I know this person, this person, this person and they are all going to say hi to me. My teachers care about me. I can get involved when I want to. There are so many opportunities you can dive into that it is really a welcoming place.”