Learn to serve

Posted: Monday, October 25, 2004

High school student Tabitha Williams volunteers in a state representative's office. Christianna Nicklie and Lesley Baker are planning a student art gallery/coffee house. Amanda Behrends and Alison Day are building Adirondack chairs that charities can sell.

They have to do something like that, or hold a part-time job, if they want to stay in school.

This year Yaakoosge Daakahidi, Juneau's alternative high school, requires nearly all of its roughly 90 students to work or serve the community.

The only exempt students are those who have completed the school district's requirement of world-to-work and elective courses.

Under a new schedule, Yaakoos students attend class four days a week, leaving Fridays free for staff planning, one-on-one help and fulfilling the work or service requirement.

About 25 students are doing community service or what's called a service learning project, staff said.

Yaakoos' new principal, Laury Scandling, took a page from Juneau-Douglas High School's CHOICE program for at-risk students, in which she has taught.

The mission of the alternative school, housed in rented quarters on 12th Street, is to prepare students to graduate from high school, ready them for work, and develop their social skills.

The required community service in CHOICE, such as putting on a fashion show last year to raise money for a food bank, "for many kids was the most effective experience they had," Scandling said.

About half of JDHS graduates don't go on to further education, surveys have shown. It's likely that an even greater percentage of Yaakoos students don't, Scandling said.

"Therefore, I think we have a professional and ethical obligation to give them experience that provides them real skills," she said. "Many of them move into independence and parenthood rather quickly after high school."

Williams, a senior who wants to study political science in college, is used to having a job. But it's hard to keep up her grades and work. So she decided to fulfill the new requirement by volunteering in the office and campaign of Juneau state Rep. Beth Kerttula.

"That's really cool," Williams said. "We'll do everything - stuffing (envelope) parties, which is more exciting than it sounds because you're meeting all these people. Discussions can be heated."

Williams takes notes on her experiences, partly because she'll write a paper about it, but partly for her own satisfaction.

"It will be cool to have in 30 years, when I'm president of the United States and look back to see where it started - which I plan to be, by the way," she said.

Why politics?

"I just all my life have kind of been seeing the way the world works and the changes that could be made, and I've never been able to do anything about it," she said.

Despite her interest, Williams "highly doubts" she would have volunteered for the campaign if it hadn't been for the school's requirement.

"It gives you a really good excuse to say, 'I have to do a project. Can I help you?' "

The projects also are a way to get the community involved with the school, "because the students have a lot of needs, and a lot of people don't even know the school exists," said Ellen Betit, who volunteers at Yaakoos.

The students may be needy in their own lives, but through the projects they meet the needs of others and learn skills, including the social skills of interacting with adults, she said.

"Just making the phone call (to an organization) can be the most difficult thing for the students," said Cheyenne Cuellar, a VISTA volunteer who coordinates the projects.

Nicklie and Baker are developing a business plan to open a student-run gallery that sells student art, combined with a coffee shop.

"I think it will be really exciting, kind of like having a baby," Nicklie said, thinking forward to its opening.

They're just starting on the plan. They've looked at related Web sites on the Internet, and will talk to the Juneau Economic Development Council for ideas.

It sounds like an uphill effort. But Betit, a professional grant writer, said the students could seek start-up funds from foundations or companies. The business could be staffed like a cooperative, with labor from the artists.

Nicklie, a senior, said she's always wanted to open a small business. She hopes to study business management in college.

"I've always wanted to have my own business, so this is good practice for me," Nicklie said. She likes the idea of being boss.

"I wouldn't be doing this until college if there weren't a requirement," she said. "Ill be ahead of the game."

Students Behrends and Day are working on something more immediate - chairs that Orca and Rotary can auction to raise money. Orca provides access to the outdoors for people with disabilities.

Behrends, a junior, has made the Adirondack-style chairs before. She learned from her mother.

"She told me she wants me to learn all the power tools before I go to college," Behrends said.

Besides, "I like to build," she said. "I like hands-on projects. I didn't want to do paperwork, volunteering in the school."

Students' involvement varies, as Scandling expected. Some students come up with creative ideas, others pick up garbage.

Ben Marvin, a sophomore, recently began helping at the Zach Gordon Youth Center, cleaning up, putting equipment away and so forth.

"I don't like service learning projects," he said. "I just think it's easier to do what (the youth center) wants me to do because I do the same at my house."

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