Douglas students taking school consolidation in stride | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Douglas students taking school consolidation in stride

Sara Thompson

Jonah M. Kessel / Tahoe Daily Tribune

When 12-year-old Austin Brooks got up for the first day of school Monday, the seventh-grader headed for Whittell High School.

But Brooks wasn’t worried about going to a new school, because he knew where his classes were and who he could ask for help if he needed it – his SMILE leader, Francisco Clavel.

Clavel, who also is the WHS student body president, said the SMILE program – Students Making It a Little Easier – does help seventh- and eighth-graders adjust to life at the high school.

Seventh- and eighth-graders now are attending the high school after the closure of Kingsbury Middle School in June due to declining enrollment. Douglas County students at Lake Tahoe are being split between the two remaining schools: Whittell High and Zephyr Cove Elementary School.

SMILE started last year to help the incoming freshmen, WHS Principal Sue Shannon said. It also helped the upperclassmen prepare for consolidation.

“The upperclassmen are taking responsibility for the incoming students to make sure they have a successful experience,” Shannon said.

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This year, SMILE has 23 leaders who have been meeting during the summer to plan for this school year, Clavel said.

Before school started, SMILE leaders held an orientation at the high school Thursday so the incoming students could become familiar with the campus before the first day. Clavel said students and their families came so that everyone could interact and get to know each other.

Shannon said the school’s small size has helped with consolidation. Most of the students already know each other and their families, so it’s not as if everyone is a stranger.

Another effort to make the seventh- and eighth-graders more comfortable was to give them their own lunch tables. In the commons, three tables are set up for only seventh- and eighth-graders. The younger students are allowed to sit anywhere, but the older students can’t sit at those designated tables, Shannon said.

“It gives them a little space for just them,” Shannon said. “That’s something the parents wanted to them to have.”

The high school also has two new science labs for the school year for the chemistry and biology classes. One room has an explosionproof refrigerator that hopefully never will be tested, Shannon said.

Down the road at Zephyr Cove Elementary, Principal Nancy Cauley said their transition was seamless.

“My fifth-graders became my sixth-graders, so we just hired a sixth-grade teacher,” Cauley said.

And now that the radon issue is resolved, the school can move forward and focus on the rest of the school year.

Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas found in decaying granite. Longtime exposure to the substance can cause lung cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The elementary school had rooms above the recommended EPA action level of 4 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L). A picocurie is a measure of radiation.

Because mitigation measures succeeded in bringing radon levels down, students were able to start school at Zephyr Cove on time.

Consolidation and radon issues were contentious among the community last year, but Cindy Trigg, a Douglas County School Board member, said she’s optimistic for the coming year.

“I think we’ve laid some problems to rest, and now we can focus on a better educational environment for the students,” Trigg said.

Trigg is running for re-election for School Board Area 3 at Lake Tahoe in this year. She’s facing Greg Felton in the Nov. 4 race. Felton has been a vocal critic in the district’s handling of radon mitigation and the middle school’s closure.

Felton couldn’t be reached Tuesday for comment.