Two finalists make pitches for top job at JDHS

Morse says she's been there; Smith touts standards experience

Posted: Sunday, February 25, 2001

Deb Morse, interim principal at Juneau-Douglas High School, says she has the experience and commitment to take the permanent position. Justin Smith of Wyoming says he knows how to use data about students to meet state academic standards.

Morse and Smith made their cases in a public interview Friday with school district administrators and the school's site council of teachers, other staff and parents.

Juneau schools Superintendent Gary Bader, after talking with the site council, will recommend to the school board whom to hire as JDHS' principal. The board could decide as soon as March 6, its next meeting. Morse and Smith were among three finalists for the job out of six applicants. One of the finalists pulled out before the public interview.

Morse is serving as principal this school year, after Sasha Soboleff transferred after one year to a central office position. Morse was previously assistant principal at JDHS for three years, a special education teacher in Juneau for four years, a principal and teacher in Adak, and a teacher in Dillingham and the Lower Kuskokwim area. She holds a master's degree in school administration from the University of Alaska Southeast.

"I know what it's all about," Morse told the group Friday afternoon in the school library. "I know what the job's going to be. I had an opportunity to get my feet wet. I'm committed to this school, committed to the community and committed to doing a good job."

The ideal principal is a good listener and mediator, the type of person who looks for a win-win result, Morse said. The principal is an instructional leader who also makes sure the lights are working. And, she said, "I think you have to be the person who carries the vision of the building" after the school has developed it.

To meet the state's academic standards, JDHS has to be sure the daily lessons tie into the curriculum, which ties into the standards, Morse said. The school also has to develop a profile of each student to identify barriers to learning.

Morse said the most successful academic model is one that breaks down the size of JDHS, which has about 1,600 students.

"You have to develop small communities in a building this big," communities such as the CHOICE program for students at risk of dropping out, in which students and teachers know each other, Morse said. "It's a huge leap for a lot of those students going to a school twice as big as the one they left."

To deal with the dropout rate - which was about 16 percent for a recent class when its freshmen were compared with its seniors - the school has to see why students are being disengaged and find hooks to keep them, Morse said. That might be sports and other activities.

Smith has been principal at 350-student Kemmerer High School in southwest Wyoming since April 1995. He is completing a doctorate in educational leadership at Montana State University. Smith has been an administrative intern and teacher at 1,800-student Helena High School in Montana, and a book broker, apartment complex manager and restaurant manager.

Smith said he's best for the JDHS job because he likes people and is very familiar with standards and assessments. Standards require a different kind of administrator, who will make decisions based on data about students.

"I use data to make decisions. I share that with the staff and community," he said.

The ideal principal collaborates with the staff, communicates a vision and can instill a spark that the staff, community and students can rally around, Smith said. In the best academic model, the principal works with staff on how to intervene with students who aren't meeting standards.

In a newspaper interview after the public interview, Smith said his school has had competency tests for juniors for three years and he's comfortable aligning curriculum to standards.

"It's a change in mind-set and philosophy for teachers," he said. Teachers are no longer the deliverer of information, but become facilitators of learning. If a student is proficient, the teacher has to move to the next standard "instead of covering everything an inch deep," Smith said.

Eric Fry can be reached at

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