‘I feel more connected to my teachers’: Juneau high school fosters community, social and emotional growth for students

Yaakoosge Daakahidi is an alternative high school in Juneau.
Artwork at Yaakoosgé Daakahidi High School (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

It has been a tough year for students because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But one program at Juneau’s Yaakoosgé Daakahidi High School is seeing students flourish with distance learning.

Recently, students at Yaakoosgé Daakahidi High School showed off handmade gingerbread houses for an end-of-the-year talent show. But because classes are virtual, they were called into a digital spotlight instead of standing in front of other students.

Each student described their technique as they put their own twist on the holiday treat.

The virtual talent show was part of an advisory class program at the school. While all high schools in the Juneau School District have advisory classes two times a week, the program at Yaakoosgé Daakahidi has five, with one each day.

“These classes are more focused at creating a connection and bond with students between staff at the school and the students, and also allows students to connect with one another on a more, deeper level. And so they’re more focused towards the students’ emotional and social well-being,” said Mary Wright, an advisor at the school.

Wright said small student groups allow for that more meaningful connection that aids learning. Topics include mental health, self care and healthy boundaries.

Back in the talent show, students expressed themselves through song, jokes and visual art. It was vibrant and kind of noisy.

Devin Tatro is a social studies teacher and an advisor at the school. She said advisors see students through their learning journey at Yaakoosgé from start to finish.

“What’s special about advisory Is that really the point is to do social emotional skills, and community building with that group of students, and also to empower the students to form relationships with staff and students in the rest of the school,” Tatro said.

Each teacher has an advisory group of about 16 kids. Advisors work with students to create a graduation plan, keep track of grades and communicate with parents. Upon graduation, advisors give a speech about each student.

That extra attention is having a positive impact on students. And this year, with mandatory distance learning, some students who might have struggled in normal times are flourishing in advisory classes.

Connor Carroll is one of those students.

“I feel more connected to my teachers at Yaakoos(gé),” Carroll said. “And other schools, I really feel like I didn’t have that connection. And that had a big effect on my grades and the work I did.”

Carroll said the virtual classes have helped him break out of his shell.

“I have a harder time in public situations, especially with larger crowds,” he said. “And that’s another great thing about Yaakoosgé. It’s not that big of a crowd, so it’s more comfortable.”

And while the upcoming school year is expected to be at least partially in-person, Carroll said he looks forward to the next semester.

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