Gervais: 2005 at JDHS was honest, tough and hopeful

Posted: Friday, December 30, 2005

It was an honest, but tough year for Juneau Douglas High School. Even though we have experienced a great deal of loss in the past 12 months, I am left with a feeling of hope.

When Reilly Richey died in March of 2005. The whole school cried. I knew him as a parent of one of my students and the quiet guy who loped down the halls between classes. He told me a very funny story at an inservice once and he made me laugh. Though I did not know Reilly well, I can see that he his absence has really been felt at my school. In the aftermath of his death, I saw clearly that he touched kids at a core level. As a simple observer, I could see the difference one man made and I admire him.

Barbara Walker, our school nurse, also passed on in June of 2005. When my students ask to go to the nurse, they are often looking for something more than Advil. Barbara had what they were looking for, always a kind word and some needed comfort. Her relationships with kids were maternal and genuine. She is missed by many.

Both Reilly and Barbara reached some students the way we, as a school, want to be able to reach all kids. We took another step towards that goal in 2005, yet the year also saw the fall of a half-hour weekly block of time called Continuous Connections. On Tuesday mornings between third and fourth periods, I got together with a diverse group of students, and my job was not to teach them math, it was to make a connection with each of them. We checked in. We stared blankly, we ate food, we felt uncertain, but we came together. We were given the time and an opportunity to try, with a basic curriculum to guide us. Teachers are suppose to know how to create communities of learners, it is what we do, yet being asked to do so outside the structure of an academic subject was more challenging.

I was assigned two, trained student-leaders to help me. We tried to engage my students. We tried lessons from the curriculum. I pulled ideas out of my bag of tricks, but still we had mixed success. Building the level of trust necessary to make a powerful vision that was Continuous Connections be successful schoolwide would take more than six months, but by spring the incredible amount of energy that went into creating the program could not be sustained. Complaints came from students and teachers alike. The dedicated block of time got reabsorbed into the schedule and the program ended. It was sad to watch, but I thought to myself, "Well, people are being honest about what they are prepared to do at this time."

Returning from the summer, the school felt different. Bernie Sorensen brought to her new job as principal of JDHS an energy and a focus that I find hopeful. I often wonder if there are really three Bernie's out and about at JDHS, the one who mingles with students between classes, the one who roles into the office right when I need her, and the one who is actively creating a dialogue for change at the high school level. Whether there are three Bernies or simply one dynamic educator filling her shoes, her presence and impact have not gone unnoticed by this teacher.

Superintendent Peggy Cowen led off this school year asking us to think about three questions, one of which was, "What does it look like when each student is visible and valued in school?" Prompted, I keep my eyes open in the halls, looking at faces I do not know and wondering if anyone knows them well. I sidle up to kids and chat with them casually. I take them aback, but they are courteous and kind. Many students seem to walk with their heads down and eyes diverted. I wonder. When I see my Continuous Connections students from last year, they lift their eyes to greet me. I like that. I've met informally with many of them just to check in and to see if I can help them in any way. Though the program did not withstand the tests it had to endure, I think that the steps we took together were worth taking. As we end the year I am hopeful that we will continue to find new ways to see all kids and value all kids equally.

• Mary-Lou Gervais teaches math at Juneau-Douglas High School.

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