From a senior class of about 20 last year, the Phoenix program at Juneau-Douglas High School sent graduates to Yale, Dartmouth and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Yet some students and parents today are concerned the alternative program won't survive.
``There have been a lot of rumors and a lot of innuendo floating around that Phoenix is not going to make it because it doesn't have the (student) numbers,'' said Nancy Fletcher, mother of one graduate and a current senior.
Phoenix has dropped to roughly 100 students in the past two years after ranging from 119 to 141 in its first four years. About 107 students are enrolled now. The program has five teachers.
Some parents and students also say they don't feel the support from top JDHS administrators they got from recently retired principal Ron Gleason, who championed the program.
``I definitely get the sense as a parent the program is not strongly supported by the current administrative environment,'' said Michael Ciri, parent of a Phoenix sophomore.
But JDHS Principal Sasha Soboleff said Phoenix is a fabulous program.
Kendra Barnes, second from right, talks with Lera Moskvichoff while planning a dinner to celebrate the Pheonix program. Students Brad Duncan, Dani Tonkin and Scott Meoller help with planning.
``We've been very supportive of them,'' he said. ``We're not the nay-sayers. We're not planning to change it.''
And Assistant Principal Deb Morse said she wholeheartedly thinks JDHS needs Phoenix. ``Without it, there would be a big hole left in the building.''
Phoenix supporters point to a budget cut this year. Funds for supplies and computer upgrades dropped from $11,800 last year to $5,000 this year.
``You feel like your basis of support is being eroded,'' said Erik Lundquist, the Phoenix science teacher.
Science teacher Erik Lindquist helps sophomore Aren Musarra with a microscope during the yeast project.
Other high school departments, serving a much larger number of students, also took a hit this year. The cuts were across the board, Soboleff said.
But low enrollments across the school district coupled with a looming budget deficit are likely to force some tough decisions. District administrators have spoken of staff layoffs as one solution to the shortfall.
Study time: Sophomore Brian Stangle reads an English assignment on a couch in the Pheonix hallway.
Soboleff's and the JDHS community's impressions of Phoenix will be important to the program's future. The school district typically gives each school a staff allocation, and leaves it up to the principals and site councils to decide how to use staff.
``We try to offer classes where we have kids, and we try to balance the teacher load,'' said schools Superintendent Gary Bader, who thinks the Phoenix program has a lot of merit.
Even last year, before the deficit, Phoenix was warned it needed to increase its student numbers, or it could lose a teacher entirely or have its teachers work in the main high school one period a day.
Soboleff said Phoenix would continue next year even at current enrollments. But he said alternative programs will face the same scrutiny that all programs face in times of budget cuts.
``It's going to cause us to examine very critically how we do these programs. We have to figure how to do these programs with less money,'' he said.
For years, some critics have thought Phoenix has too many teachers for its number of students, compared with the main high school.
The 25 Phoenix classes vary in size from 12 to 26 students. More than half the classes have 20 or fewer students.
In contrast, many classes at the main high school have student numbers in the high 20s and low 30s. More than a third of English classes, for example, have 30 or more students.
But Phoenix teacher Lundquist sees large classes in the main high school as a separate issue. If all the Phoenix students and teachers were put into the main high school, it would reduce JDHS class sizes on average by less than one student, he said.
Class sizes alone don't measure teacher loads, Phoenix supporters added. Phoenix teachers design and oversee projects, even outside of their subject area.
Phoenix supporters are concerned that even the loss of one teacher, for all or part of the day, would drastically change the program. Phoenix emphasizes interdisciplinary projects, multi-age classrooms, teacher collaboration, a communal spirit and flexibility in the school day.
Lundquist said Phoenix couldn't function as it exists now with only four teachers.
Losing a teacher ``would rip the program apart,'' said Toby Harbanuk, a junior who transferred this year from home school. ``Phoenix would just be a place to go part of the time.''
Barriers to enrollments
Principal Soboleff said Phoenix needs to recruit middle school students who will join the program when they get to JDHS.
But there are barriers to higher enrollments in Phoenix.
Every year some freshmen leave Phoenix because it doesn't suit them.
``Either it's too hard, or they don't like the people in it, or don't like the teachers, or don't like how it's isolated from the high school,'' said freshman Mike James, who plans to stay.
Some JDHS students don't join Phoenix because the number of required courses makes it harder to schedule electives at the main high school. James was able to fit in concert band, but he couldn't get a drawing class he wanted.
And the flip side of a small separate community is being isolated from friends in the main high school - and being labeled elitist. Phoenix students know they're resented by some JDHS students and it discourages others from joining the program.
But Phoenix students insist they're not all smart - really.
``It's not just the geeks and nerds,'' said freshman Megan Clough after a class. She was wearing slippers with happy faces at the time.
``A lot of people get the idea Phoenix is only for the smart, intelligent people. But it's not. Trust me,'' said senior Rory Fletcher.
Juneau Empire ©2014. All Rights Reserved.