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SD Department of Education Jan. 2016  


Photo of Deb Steele, principal of Rapid City High School
Call them leaders and they will lead

I'll buy you anything but a textbook, because the textbook didn't work. That's why they're here.

That was the guidance Deb Steele's principal gave when she began working for the Rapid City Area School District's first alternative programs in the early 1990s. "There was no blueprint for what an alternative school looked like, and we worked to tailor it to fit the needs of the kids," Steele says.

Steele is now the principal of Rapid City High School, which houses all of the district's alternative programs under one roof. "We do more hands-on types of things where they have to prove what they know. They can create or demonstrate something, versus doing worksheets, quizzes and so forth," she says. "We push attendance, being here, taking care of your schoolwork while you're here. We have longer class periods that give them enough time to get through the material."

In spring 2013, Steele visited Wagner High School to learn about Jobs for America's Graduates (JAG), a leadership program for students at risk of dropping out. She was amazed at what she saw: "By Christmas of their senior year, they all had letters of acceptance at the colleges of their choice."

In fall 2013, Steele brought the program to Rapid City High School. "Deb's leadership and guidance in regard to JAG can best be summed up in two words: enthusiasm and support," says Julie Callahan, one of two JAG teachers at RCHS. "From the beginning, her enthusiasm has been contagious and, because of that, JAG was accepted as an integral part of the school dynamic." In December 2015, Steele received a National Education Leadership Award from JAG for her efforts with the program.

In regards to winning the award, Steele says, "I'm just doing my job, and I love it. I'm fortunate that I have a job I love. So getting recognized for something that I just love doing was uncomfortable for a little bit."

After Steele accepted the invitation to attend the awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., she was also asked to speak at the event. "So when we got to the Kennedy Caucus Room, it was full of Fortune 500 CEOs, governors and congressmen from all over the country. Luckily I survived it. But if I had known that I was going to be speaking to all those people? I know me. I would have chickened out and just said, 'I'm sorry, I can't go. Can you mail it to me?'"

Some JAG students can likely identify with the feeling. "We talk about them being the leaders of the school. And that old adage about 'you are what you believe,' it's true," Steele says. "They step up and become the leaders of the school. It's fascinating to watch that transpire."

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