Principal candidates tout experience

Posted: Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The three candidates for the principal's job at Juneau-Douglas High School pointed to their experience during public interviews Tuesday in the school library.

A committee of Juneau School District administrators and JDHS staff members, parents and students asked each candidate the same questions and heard much the same in response.

The committee will make a recommendation to Superintendent Peggy Cowan, who will present her choice to the Juneau School Board, which has the final say.

The new principal will come aboard at a time when the school district is looking at ways to break up JDHS into smaller learning communities. The district also expects to open a second high school in the fall of 2008, at which point JDHS will become considerably smaller and the staff and student body will be split between the two schools.

The school's enrollment varied from roughly 1,675 to 1,575 students this school year. The dip is because some students complete their credits in the first semester of senior year.

Candidate Bernie Sorenson is assistant superintendent of the Juneau School District and is the former principal at Glacier Valley Elementary.

Before that, in her 23-year career, she coordinated grants and assessment, and the English as a Second Language and bilingual programs for the district, taught literacy at Harborview Elementary, and taught in Montana.

Sorenson said her vision of excellence is success for every student and "that means we individualize."

She spoke of the need to foster partnerships with the community and get students involved in school to prevent them from dropping out.

The way to meet state and federal achievement standards is to examine data from mandated tests, look for trends and build strategies, she said.

"I have a lot of experience in change," Sorenson said in response to a question about how to effect change in a large school.

When Sorenson came to Glacier Valley, the staff felt disenfranchised, some classrooms lacked discipline, and academics were less than rigorous, she said.

Sorenson wrote a grant that provided for staff development. The school set up activity nights for parents and children.

"Through all that we created some common things we all believed in and we started standing for that," Sorenson said.

Candidate Elizabeth Burrell Balcerek is principal at the 170-student school in Buckland, about 75 miles southeast of Kotzebue.

Before that in her 32-year education career she was a principal, assistant principal, counselor and teacher in small and medium-size schools in North Carolina.

She holds a doctorate in educational administration and supervision from the University of Tennessee.

To meet academic standards, a school has to look at test results and refine instruction to target students' needs, Balcerek said.

"Teachers have to sit down elbow to elbow and disaggregate the data and see what it tells us about instruction," she said.

To improve attendance, Balcerek suggested that the school create incentives by recognizing students who improve academically or in attendance, and that the principal meet regularly with students.

"You try to make academics and academic attainment - and attendance is part of that - an important value of the student body," she said.

The best way to create change in a large school is through site-based management, she said, because it's only if people have a stake in the decision that will they honor it.

Candidate Richard Hebhardt is superintendent of the 200-student Bristol Bay Borough School District, which serves Naknek and King Salmon.

In his 27-year career, he also has been interim superintendent at the Copper River School District and in Skagway. He was assistant principal at a high school in Oxnard, Calif., and in Haines. And he has worked for the Alaska Gateway School District and the Lake and Peninsula School District.

Hebhardt said his vision of educational excellence is that all students have the opportunity to learn and succeed, whatever their interests, intellectual abilities or skills, to the extent that they can hold a 21st-century job.

"I envision a school where academic excellence is promoted, where it is not just paid lip service," he said.

A good school has as many extracurricular activities as possible, and it connects with the business community about job placements, he said.

The way to meet academic standards is to be sure that instruction is aligned with the standards, Hebhardt said. The principal should regularly and consistently observe teachers and model the best classroom practices, he said.

Effecting change in a large school is difficult, he said, but a principal should be able to "communicate earnestly" with the staff in presenting a new model and be dogged about it.

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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