Yaakoosge Daakahidi - on the move?

School district proposes moving alternative school

Posted: Sunday, January 25, 2004

Moving the alternative high school to a building shared with Juneau-Douglas High School could dilute the small school's identity and discourage students from attending, students and staff at Yaakoosge Daakahidi say.

To save $75,000 a year in rent, the Juneau School District is considering moving Yaakoosge Daakahidi - "House of Knowledge" in Tlingit - from its leased quarters on Twelfth Street to the district's Marie Drake building, which is next to JDHS and is used by its students for some classes.

Yaakoos Principal Ronalda Cadiente said the move could lead more students to drop out.

"If this program becomes more closely associated with J-D High and is on the J-D High campus, I predict the students may make a decision to not want to be on that campus anymore and not consider this an option because they wouldn't see it as a separate entity," Cadiente said.

The district is considering the move as part of a package of about $2.17 million in possible cuts to balance next school year's budget. Juneau School Board members have said they don't want to make any of the reductions. But if they spare one program, another program will have to absorb a bigger cut, they have said.

With the proposed move, there is "certainly a risk of changing the nature of the (Yaakoos) community and also of increasing the already unacceptable dropout rate," Superintendent Peggy Cowan told the board last week.

About a third of JDHS students drop out over a four-year period, recent figures show. Yaakoos houses about 90 16- to 21-year-old students at any given time. For many of its students, Yaakoos is the last chance to get a diploma.

The school packs semester-long courses into a quarter, and offers a full program in the morning and afternoon. Students can catch up on credits and still have time to work. About 35 Yaakoos students graduate each year.

Students and staff have sometimes complained about the small classrooms, some with no windows, at the rented site. When students stand behind their chairs in Joyce Thoresen's classroom, their backs touch cabinets piled to the ceiling with books.

It would be "wonderful" to have a regular-sized classroom, with storage space and a phone system with voice mail, Thoresen said. And teachers have said it would be helpful for Yaakoos students to be closer to the Teen Health Center, which is in the Drake building, and to after-school activities at JDHS.

But many Yaakoos students say they don't want to be swallowed up by the 1,600-student JDHS, even if it just involves milling with students in the hallways.

"I moved here because I didn't get along with a lot of people in the (regular) high school," said Yaakoos senior Megan Campbell. "I get along with everybody here."

At Marie Drake, "we'd probably be labeled as the bad kids. We're already labeled enough. They call us the Native school and the pregnant school," she said.

The school, at 45 percent, has about twice the percentage of Native students that JDHS has. And some girls who have children attend Yaakoos because its half-day schedule allows them more time at home.

In the long term, the district may look at moving Yaakoos to the building on Twelfth Street that now houses the central office staff and the School Board chambers, Cowan said.

The district hasn't estimated the cost of renovating the administrative building as a school and creating quarters elsewhere for administrators, said district Business Manager Gary Epperson. For now, the focus is on the Drake building, Cowan said.

Of the 36 Yaakoos students recently surveyed about the move, 24 opposed it, five were indifferent, and seven supported it. The staff also would prefer a self-contained school, despite the amenities at the Drake building.

"I think that's why most of the kids are here - to have a separate facility and run our own show," Thoresen said. "Most of them left (JDHS) because of incidents and don't want to be there."

Cadiente, the principal, said it's easier to manage the students when they're in a separate building. And teachers said they could recall only one fight, between two girls, in the past seven years.

Yaakoos students like the atmosphere of a small school. At 9 o'clock Thursday morning, students were eating pastries from the school's small store, and student Aiona Lehauli was baking rolls flavored with coconut milk.

Student Shauna DeTemple said she felt like a salmon going upstream when she attended JDHS, with its crowded hallways. Student Libby Nowlin said Yaakoos would feel more like a JDHS program than a separate school if it were housed at the Drake building.

"By being here and with this lesser crowd, it helped me out a lot," said student Christina Schultz. "There's more one-on-one help here. By going over to the high school, I think, it's going to be more crowded and less attention to people who actually need help."

Students who favor the move were more willing to interact with JDHS students.

"Over here, it's like we're ignored by the high school," Yaakoos student Louis Ocasio said.

Patrick Dusuntia, who recently moved to Yaakoos from JDHS, is on the JDHS cheerleading team.

The district considers Yaakoos to be a separate school, but its students graduate with JDHS diplomas. A Yaakoos student is on the JDHS site council.

"When they have assemblies, I'd like to see us there," Dusuntia said. "Not only assemblies but any activities that deal with the normal high school. Because they do treat us as misfits."

• Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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