Deb Morse, confirmed by the Juneau School Board on Tuesday as Juneau-Douglas High School's principal, says she likes challenges. That's just as well, because she's been working 12-hour days as the school's interim principal this year.
"It's out of the ordinary. You never know what the day will bring you," Morse said today.
Morse began her career teaching special education in the Lower Kuskokwim area and continued with that in Dillingham and Adak, and at Gastineau Elementary and JDHS before then-principal Ron Gleason chose her as an assistant principal.
Morse brings to the job "absolute dedication, commitment based on time as well as action," Gleason said. "She's willing to make decisions. She's willing to do what's right. She's willing to listen, but she's not afraid of making a decision."
Schools Superintendent Gary Bader said he and the school site council recommended Morse for the position over one other finalist because she's well-organized, has experience at JDHS, knows the community and has the vision to implement a long-range plan to improve the school.
Morse said the biggest challenge is moving the staff forward to improve the 1,600-student school. During her public interview with the school's site council, some teachers said it's difficult to get a consensus to make changes.
"It is hard getting everyone on the same page and moving forward," Morse agreed today. But the combination of experienced teachers anchoring the staff and an influx of new teachers because of early retirements provides a prime opportunity for change, she said.
The school is too big to be responsive to individuals, said Gleason, who retired two years ago after serving as principal for eight years.
"Kids currently can go through a school that size and not have a meaningful exchange with an adult," he said. "Parents feel disenfranchised with a system that size. ... And most important, it's very difficult to have a focus for a system that size."
Morse said she wants to create smaller communities at JDHS.
"I would like to increase the opportunity for teachers to teach together in small teams. That's part of the success of a program like CHOICE," she said, referring to a program for students at risk of dropping out.
Team teachers can plan together, talk about individual students and know what's going on in the other classes in the team, she said.
Morse also wants to talk to students who drop out, and their parents, to find out why they do so. Poor attendance and drop-outs are "only symptoms of a problem. They're not the actual problem."
The planned renovation of JDHS, which includes a kitchen and larger commons, could reduce absenteeism and tardiness by making the school more attractive and keeping students on campus during lunch, Morse said.
JDHS has had three principals in three years. After Gleason retired, former assistant principal Sasha Soboleff held the job for a year and then took a central office job. As interim principal, Morse didn't have the "full arsenal of administrative empowerment," Superintendent Bader said.
"It really is an opportunity now to sit down and identify the problems and barriers to learning," Morse said of the permanent job.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.