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It’s time to rethink the high school programs

Posted: August 22, 2011 - 9:10pm

As a parent of two students in Juneau’s schools — one in high school and one in his last year of middle school — I am concerned about the decreasing number of courses and academic opportunities at our high schools.

Take languages as an example. When Juneau had one high school, any student could take Japanese, Russian, French or Spanish, and could pursue those languages through all four years. Now, Juneau-Douglas High School does not offer Russian at all and is “phasing out” Japanese. French is down to one introductory section and will likely be gone in a few years. Soon JDHS will only have Spanish. Russian seems to be hanging on at Thunder Mountain, but for how long? This is crazy. In a global economy, our schools should be expanding language teaching — maybe adding Chinese and Korean — not contracting.

The same is true almost every other area: math, science, literature, art and our high schools’ excellent career programs. More and more, courses are “stacked” or canceled and students can’t get the courses they need. I’ve heard many parents complain that our high schools are in a “race to the bottom” when it comes to academic quality. That’s an overstatement, but the fact remains that, with some exceptions, our high schools today do not offer the academic breadth and depth of the “old” JDHS.

The main reason: we have three small high schools where we once had one big school. Small schools have many advantages. Students don’t get lost in the shuffle as easily; struggling students can be recognized and helped; students with personal or family problems have a better chance of being noticed. But the fact is that smaller schools have fewer students and fewer teachers and, standing alone, fewer academic options.

This doesn’t have to mean we have to lose academic quality. It does mean the high schools have to think hard about which courses to offer, and need to purposefully focus on those courses and programs which add value to each student’s education and don’t just fill out the schedule. This can be done, if there is the will to make it happen.

First, we have roughly the same number of students and teachers as before, just spread out among three schools instead of concentrated in one. We need to think about distributing programs between the schools. None of our schools can offer everything to all students. Some specialization could assure that, as a community, we provide the full spectrum of opportunities to our students — even if not all at each of the schools.

Second, we have terrific building blocks available. The AVID program has the potential for developing more students into high academic achievers. The Advanced Placement program has paid off already for many students who, while in the Juneau high schools, have completed college-level courses. Project Lead the Way and the ACES Program are building gateways to the trades and other post-secondary career opportunities. The two main high schools are harmonizing bell schedules so students can take courses at either school with a minimum of disruption.

Third, we have talented teachers and administrators across all levels of our school district, dedicated school board members and strong, long-standing community support for education.

Maintaining academic richness in our new, smaller high schools is turning out to be a more significant challenge than expected. Budget constraints, declining enrollments and inertia are barriers; busy teachers and parents only have so much time available. We need to do everything we can to make sure our high school graduates have the skills and knowledge to succeed. Building and maintaining solid academics is a critical factor toward reaching that goal.

• Monkman is a parent representative on the Juneau-Douglas High School Site Council. He has served on the Dzantiki Heeni Site Council, the Juneau School District’s Budget Review Committee, and the Extended Learning Parent Advisory Committee.

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