Freshmen filled the stands at the Juneau-Douglas High School gym Friday morning and called out "eee," "aah" and "oh" before they realized they were being induced into singing "Old McDonald Had a Farm."
Welcome to high school.
The orientation, based on a nationwide model called Link, introduces freshmen to administrators, helpful students in the senior class and the school building. By singing songs, playing games and touring the school in paper costumes, freshmen could ease some of their anxieties about being the new kids on the block before classes start Wednesday.
"The more the kids feel connected to the school, the more positive their experience. It's the disconnected students, we find, who have the most trouble," said counselor Frank Coenraad.
This is also the first year in the school district for two principals and two assistant principals. Tom Milliron, who was assistant principal at Floyd Dryden Middle School, has taken the reins there. And Jackie Kookesh, former principal in Angoon who did her administrative internship at Dryden, will fill Milliron's old job.
Karen MacDonald, a former elementary school teacher in Anchorage, is principal at the 450-student Mendenhall River Community School. And Laury Scandling, who was a social studies teacher in the CHOICE program for at-risk students at JDHS, is now an assistant principal at the high school, supervising freshman attendance and discipline, CHOICE and special education, among other tasks.
"I'm nervous, I'm scared, I'm kind of afraid, but I'm really excited," Scandling told the freshman class Friday. "And I suggest that's how a lot of you feel."
After telling the students that one out of six freshmen from the fall of 1995 didn't graduate in 1999, Scandling advised them: "Don't miss class. Be on time. Do the work."
In an interview, Scandling, who already misses teaching, said she agreed to take the job on a one-year interim basis because she will supervise her fields of interest.
"I feel that one of my strengths is I'm a genuine advocate for kids, especially those who don't fit in easily in the system," Scandling said.
The school knows that students who do poorly as freshmen and fall behind in their credits are more likely to drop out, she said.
To help freshmen feel they belong to a community, JDHS this fall will begin a team approach for 150 freshmen. Three teachers, in physical science, algebra and English, will share the same students. The hope is that fewer kids will slip through the cracks because the team's teachers will share their knowledge of the students as individuals, Scandling said.
Getting families more involved in school is one of the goals of MacDonald at Mendenhall River Community School. Schools can no longer count on parents staying at home and being available to volunteer in the school, she said.
"That may not work for 90 percent of our families," MacDonald said. "So we have to look at other ways of family involvement and not alienate a family by making them feel they aren't involved because they can't come to a meeting or volunteer in the school," she said.
Parents might get involved by helping their children with homework or setting up a work space for their children at home, she said. The school might communicate to parents through e-mail, an up-to-date Web site that lists homework assignments, or teleconferencing for parents who can't get to the school building during the day, she said.
Mendenhall River, like Juneau's other elementary schools, plans to offer more opportunities for families to learn together, such as math or reading nights in which parents and children play learning games, or parents get the skills to help children with their homework, MacDonald said.
MacDonald holds a bachelor's degree in elementary education and a master's in educational leadership from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She taught kindergarten and third grade in Anchorage for 11 years, served a principal's internship at the alternative Polaris K-12 school in Anchorage for six months, and directed a federal school improvement grant for the state Department of Education for about a year.
MacDonald said she turned to school administration because she wanted to help develop policies and see the results. Teachers don't develop policies much, and state administrators don't see the results day to day.
As a principal she can brainstorm and see the results of that labor, MacDonald said, "and get the little smiles and painted fingerprints on your clothes. Here, I plan to be very much visible and active outside of my office."
Milliron, a Ph.D. candidate in educational leadership from Florida State University, was assistant principal at Floyd Dryden Middle School for two years, following a career that included teaching math and administering small schools.
"Being a good listener" is his role as principal, Milliron said. "I see a lot of collaborative decision-making at Dryden, but providing leadership at the school, providing a vision for a direction, keeping a focus on our state standards and most of all keeping a focus on our kids."
Milliron said results from the state's new benchmark tests, given in grades three, six and eight, will help the schools modify instruction and counseling to meet students' individual needs or the needs of populations within the school.
"Somehow we tend to lose students about the seventh-grade level" as hormones kick in and the curriculum gets harder, he said.
Milliron said teachers, counselors, administrators and parents will help students at risk of failing by building on the students' strengths.
"Success breeds success," Milliron said.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.