By Steven Law
Special to the Chronicle
PAGE – All teachers leave behind a significant legacy in the students they’ve influenced who then go out and influence the world, and Janice Prather, who retired from Manson Mesa High School in May, certainly did that.
But Prather leaves behind an additional legacy that will continue to benefit Page and many of its students long after she’s gone. Prather was one of key players in establishing Manson Mesa High School.
“She’s the reason Manson Mesa High School exists,” said Sharon Woodard, former Page High School music teacher.
Prather moved to Page in 2005, during which she began teaching in an alternative-education classroom. Her classroom that first year was in a portable trailer located on a dirt lot on the corner of South Lake Powell Boulevard and Coppermine Road.
Most students in her alternative education classroom fell into one of three categories: 1) They were older students who had fallen behind on their credits. 2) They had a hard time learning in a traditional classroom setting. 3) They had personal issues that interfered with regular school attendance, such as motherhood, judicial commitments, or helping support their family.
“There’s a certain segment of the population who don’t benefit from traditional learning classroom strategies,” Prather said. “In an (alternative education) classroom we can tailor the way we teach so it conforms to the way they learn. We have students who are really bright, but they may panic or stress out during tests. If that’s the case we can use other methods to determine if they’re learning the material.”
Through the years, Prather further developed her curriculum and expanded part of it into a credit recapture program, in which students who have fallen behind on their credits can make them up and go on to graduate.
Because of personal and family circumstances many of the alternative education students dealt with, the program began working with the district’s newly-establish At-Risk Committee, which was being headed by Sharon Woodard.
After retiring from her position as band teacher in 2001, Woodard returned to the district in 2002 to teach leadership and during that time Woodard procured for the district a drop-out prevention grant, and a Safe Schools, Healthy Families grant, which gave the school district the means to be more pro-active about student retention. With that money the district started an At-Risk Committee, and Woodard was named as its Director. The At-Risk Committee eventually evolved into Student Support Services.
“A lot of the kids we were working with were also some of the same kids in Janice’s alt-ed class,” Woodard said.
In the years that followed Woodard and Prather would work together often. Woodard recalls the impact Prather had on the school. Prather’s alternative education class made a big difference from the get-go, said Woodard. Before Prather arrived in Page there was no option for students who fell behind on their credits to get caught up.
“Her (alternative education) class significantly lowered our dropout rates and raised our graduation rates,” Woodard said.
Prather’s classroom was a safe place for those students who learned better using non-traditional methods, Woodard remembers.
“She always interacted with her students with respect and dignity,” Woodard said. “I believe her ability to see every student as a valuable learner was one of the greatest things she brought to us.”
As the alternative education program and Student Support Services program matured, Prather and Woodard began holding weekly meetings with Robin Scaramazzo, who was Dean of Students for Page High School at the time. The purpose of the meetings was to identify and track students who, for one reason or another, were struggling with their classes and starting to fall behind, or fail.
“The grant money we received helped us so much,” Woodard said. “Instead of chasing problems down, we could tackle them when we first noticed them; before they spiraled into something worse.”
In addition to getting help from Student Support Services or getting caught up on school work, many of struggling students were also paired with counselors and liaisons.
“We identified what was preventing the students from succeeding and we worked to help the students overcome those challenges,” Woodard said.
The number of students in the alternative education program continued to increase and its curriculum evolved and grew as well. At the same time Woodard’s at-risk program had evolved into Student Support Services.
Around 2013, Prather, Woodard, and Scaramazzo began talking with Jim Walker, who was Page Unified School District’s superintendent at the time, about what it would take to expand the alt-ed program into its own alternative school.
“With Manson Mesa, the question was never why do this, but why not do this” Prather said.
Prather, Woodard, and Walker developed Manson Mesa’s handbook and mission statement.
The expansion had another big thing going for it: the school district had a building, located on the high school campus, which was mostly empty.
“Janice [Prather] was the key to that effort,” Scaramazzo said. “We knew if we started the school Janice would see it through and get the kids through.”
When everything was in place superintendent Walker then pitched the idea to the schoolboard, which approved it. Manson Mesa High School was founded at the beginning of the 2015-16 school year. Ryan Tkalcevic served as Manson Mesa’s principal during its first two years.
Prather served as Manson Mesa’s interim principal during the 2017-18 school year after Tkalcevic left to take a position in the valley. Mary Stahl became the school’s principal at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year.
Manson Mesa has around 50 students enrolled during any given school year. It just graduated 16 students at the end of May.
Mary Stahl, Manson Mesa’s principal, said Prather embodied everything that was great about the school.
“Janice is a kind and patient person, and for as long as I’ve known her, 14 years now, she has worked with our school district’s most difficult, at risk students,” Stahl said. “She helped many of them graduate from high school. She understands where her students are coming from, cognitively and emotionally, and she works with them.
She is able to pinpoint where students struggle-- and then she builds their skills to help them be successful. There was one student in particular this year who wouldn’t speak to us for the first semester. He got into some trouble and seemed like he was going to continue down the wrong path.
During class, he would just put his head down. Because of her encouragement and tutelage, by the end of the year he was reading, answering questions, and asking for help. This student is a different person because of her--he is more confident and he stays out of trouble. She will be missed by everyone here at Manson Mesa. I enjoyed working with her my first year--she taught me so much.”
Scaramazzo said Prather was one of the best teachers she’s ever known.
“She was one of those people who was a born teacher,” Scaramazzo said. “She’s a treasure when it comes to working with at-risk kids. She gets them, and they get her.”
Prather said she’s proud of Manson Mesa and what it’s able to accomplish.
“It’s an educator’s duty to provide our students with an education,” Prather said. “Our main mission here at Manson Mesa is to help our students become productive members of society.”
During Manson Mesa’s graduation ceremony Prather delivered a short speech, part of which was a quote from Mother Theresa, which reads, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
It was so appropriate that Prather should use that quote, said Woodard. “That quote is the epitome of Janice. She’s a difference-maker. She’ll be missed.”