Students at alternative school seek parity with JDHS

Feeling at Yaakoos is that it's a 2nd-class school

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2003

While Juneau-Douglas High School is the subject of a $21 million renovation, a teacher at Yaakoosge Daakahidi alternative high school tapes blankets over windows to keep the wind out, and some students wear long johns in the winter.

Two classrooms don't have that problem because they don't have windows, and another room is too small, so the class meets in a commons area.

When "Yaakoos" teacher Joyce Thoresen has a full class in her narrow room and she wants to walk to the other end, she has to step out of one door, walk down the hallway and pop in through another door.

"It's by no means equitable," said Carol Sewill, who teaches independent studies at Yaakoos and runs the school district's correspondence school.

Students at Yaakoos say the school district treats them like second-class citizens. Even its teachers say the school has unequal facilities, although its students must meet the same graduation requirements as those at JDHS.

Yaakoosge Daakahidi - "house of knowledge" in Tlingit - serves about 100 16- to 21-year-old students at any given time in leased space on 12th Street and Glacier Avenue, down the street from the 1,600-student JDHS.

The school district thinks of Yaakoos as a separate school, but its graduates receive degrees from JDHS, creating ambiguity about the alternative school's links to the bigger school.

Among the Yaakoos student and faculty complaints: Classrooms aren't hooked up for cable television. Computers are old and unreliable. Textbooks in some subjects are lacking. Few calculators are capable of advanced work. There are no science labs, vocational shops or art rooms.

"These computers are really slow. If we have too many kids on them, they freeze," Cassandra Olea, a senior, said in an interview. She and other Yaakoos students spoke to the Juneau School Board earlier this school year about their concerns.

"Even the simple thing like trying to make a PowerPoint (computer presentation) never works. You rely a lot on floppy disks (to save material), but those aren't always available," junior Kaley Hoyle said.

Without cable TV, "when 9/11 happened we couldn't watch what was going on. We had to listen to the radio," said Thoresen.

Students also feel left out of JDHS activities, generally aren't allowed to take classes at JDHS, and aren't welcome on the main campus without a pass.

Students bristle at having to get a pass from Yaakoos staff to enter JDHS and use the library, see a counselor or visit the teen health center. They aren't allowed to visit JDHS for nonacademic reasons such as to eat lunch with friends.

"It's easy to get a pass, but it's how you're treated when you go over there," Hoyle said.

Yaakoos graduating seniors were left off the senior sweatshirts, which list the names of all graduates, "because they never bothered to contact us," Sewill said.

"They don't give us a chance to be part of the school," Hoyle said.

School district administrators point out that even JDHS students need hall passes when they're in a class to go to the library or elsewhere.

JDHS was open last year at lunchtime and after school to Yaakoos students, but some were disrespectful to school authorities, said Yaakoos administrator Ronalda Cadiente.

"From a managing standpoint, I know it's challenging to have students who might abuse the right to be there," she said.

Yaakoos isn't alone among schools in the district in complaining about inadequate computers and long waits for upgrades and repairs. The school did have more graphing calculators, but they were stolen. Similarly, some students don't return textbooks. It's up to each school to replenish its book supply, but its hard for the small school to do so on its budget.

And, district administrators said, in many cases Yaakoos students have chosen the smaller school, where they get more personal attention, because they didn't like the regular school.

"In order to give students an alternative, we tried to set it up with its own administrator, its own teachers and its own unique program," said Superintendent Peggy Cowan. "It is established as a separate identity and a separate school."

To Sewill, a Yaakoos teacher, "The greatest inequity is our students have to meet the same class requirements as the students at JDHS. And if we can't provide it, they aren't welcome on the JDHS campus.

"They're expecting a staff of three regular teachers and one special education (teacher) to provide a complete curriculum."

How many classes Yaakoos has to provide varies with the student. Many come to the school with some credits from regular high schools, and some students take correspondence courses with Sewill or from other programs to fill in gaps.

Cadiente, the school's administrator, said most students are in the program for one to two years. But increasingly, teachers say, they're seeing entering students with very few credits.

"Now we're getting students with half a credit and we're expected to provide 20 1/2 credits with 3 1/2 teachers," Sewill said.

"If you're a good math student and you want to go on to trigonometry or calculus - sorry," said special education, English and art teacher Amy Kesten.

The school's lone math and science teacher offers algebra I and geometry, plus some science courses.

Yaakoos students are allowed to take courses at JDHS in the regular school year on a case-by-case basis, said Ron DeLay, the district's director of student services. Yaakoos students can take classes in the JDHS summer program as well, he said.

For many of its students, Yaakoos is the last chance to avoid dropping out. It packs semester-long courses into a quarter, and it offers a full program in the morning and afternoon. Students can catch up on credits and still have time to work. About 30 Yaakoos students graduate each year.

Students come to the school for a variety of reasons, including hating large schools, needing quick credits, wanting a schedule that lets them work or care for their children, and requiring personal attention from teachers.

Some students don't live with their families anymore; some have their own families. A few don't really have a home except friends' couches.

Yaakoos students say the school doesn't have a good reputation among JDHS students. They want to change that.

"A lot of people look at the alternative school as an easy way to get credits, like it's a slacker school," senior Ericka Love said. "I learned more in my one year of being here than I have at the high school (in three years)."

Charley Jones, principal at the 130-student alternative Revilla High School in Ketchikan, which offers its own degrees, said inequalities with big schools and a stigma come with the territory.

"There is definitely a double standard in all alternative high schools," Jones said. "We're never going to be equal. That's life in this league."

Often students at alternative schools have their own kind of snobbery, looking down at the "Sally Rally" attitude at regular high schools, he said.

"Pep assemblies just amuse our kids to no end. They are the butt of numerous jokes," he said.

But Revilla students, who work through the same curriculum as Ketchikan High students do but at their own pace, are welcome now to take courses at the regular school. It wasn't always that way.

"It's been a monster problem. It's been awful. Some people don't even know they're prejudiced" against alternative students, Jones said.

Yaakoos students may want to feel more welcome at JDHS, but they like the atmosphere of a small, alternative school.

"It's not like there's a little crowd over here, a little crowd over there. We don't have to worry about getting beat up going to class," Hoyle said.

She said students are on a first-name basis with teachers.

"They don't treat you like a student but a friend. They don't speak at you, they speak with you," Hoyle said.

Some of the inequities in facilities may be alleviated after a new high school is built, possibly by fall 2006, and space is freed up at the JDHS campus. The school district has talked about someday moving the alternative high school to the Marie Drake building, which is next to JDHS and used as an annex.

That would put Yaakoos classrooms on the same computer network as JDHS, for example, and make it easier for alternative students to participate in after-school activities at the regular school.

Eric Fry can be reached at

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