My Turn: Second high school moving ahead toward '06 opening date

Posted: Thursday, January 15, 2004

Happy New Year! 2006 and the opening of the new high school may seem a long way off, but we'd like to report on the essential progress that has been made to date. The construction documents are 95 percent finished, the bids should be let this spring, and the site work and construction are scheduled to begin this summer. The project team, made up of Assembly and School Board members and staff, has been meeting regularly with the goal of opening this school in the fall of 2006.

Having two high schools brings with it challenges, but when we walk through our overcrowded high school, we again are grateful for the vision of our community. We are also grateful to our Juneau legislative delegation that fought to get Juneau included in Proposition C. Their effort gives us the opportunity to build our new high school with 60 percent reimbursement by the state.

There have been numerous public meetings and four years of planning sessions to determine the educational specifications for the school program and the various aspects concerning the adjoining property, the playing fields, the entry off Riverside Drive and how the school will serve the community. The peer review recommendations have provided cost-saving ideas that have been incorporated into the building. The School District is working from this public input on the issues of boundaries, sports programs, class offerings, staffing, bussing and all the other myriad issues that must be addressed before this school can open.

Our high school staff will generally be divided between the two high schools, with a few new hires such as a principal, librarian, nurse and registrar. The basic core academics will be the same at Juneau-Douglas High School and the new school, and include English, mathematics, social studies, world languages, health and science. For visual arts the plan is to have both three-dimensional, pottery and sculpture and two-dimensional, painting instruction. Performing arts will include band, orchestra, vocal music and drama. Physical education and athletics will be accommodated in two gyms. Family and consumer science will include food and textile. Business and technology will include CAD and business course offerings with the metal and wood shops continued downtown, but not provided in the new high school program.

There are many changes occurring in the world of education as the state determines how the federal program NCLB (No Child Left Behind) will affect us. As with all major projects, there are some decisions that cannot be made before other issues are resolved. We will want your input as we work through the specific offerings and will be holding similar public forums as we have in the past.

Research shows that smaller schools are better for students. The nation and state have drawn attention to the failure rate of students, especially in some sub-populations. What we know about small schools is that the populations that struggle to be successful in school benefit from smaller schools and that a smaller school does not negatively impact those who are successful in larger schools. Two smaller schools will not be the single answer to Juneau's unacceptable dropout rate, but they will contribute to the turnaround of that rate by providing an opportunity for students to know their teachers and classmates better and having more opportunities to be involved in activities.

The state allocates increased funding for smaller schools. The current state education funding formula will provide an increase of more than $800,000 in state funds annually to our school district when the new high school opens, which will cover the extra maintenance and operating costs, as well as the limited number of additional staff required for the new high school.

Our expectation is that both schools will be at 80 percent capacity on opening day in 2006, which is a favorable capacity by Department of Education standards. It is irresponsible to build to the expected enrollment on opening day. The current high school is crowded; it houses 400 more students than its design capacity. The new high school will alleviate overcrowding at JDHS and accommodate a larger student population in the future. The population of Juneau in 1960, a few years after JDHS opened, was 9,745. Juneau's population in 2000 was 30,711. The life of the new high school will span generations. It is more responsible to plan today for future growth than to build for the present and be faced with overcrowding and expansion in 10 years.

The School Board is appreciative of Juneau's citizens' support of education and the new high school. Seventy percent of Juneau voters voted in favor of Proposition C. The voters have twice passed a bond election to fund the new high school. The School Board and the Assembly have teamed to carry out the will of the voters. The district staff, especially those at JDHS, has added their vision. Parents, staff and community members have attended hours of public meetings and provided their vision since 1999. The School Board is committed to fulfilling this vision of providing quality education for Juneau teens at two high school facilities. We invite you to share the vision of our community's two high schools. Our next community forum on the new high school will be Thursday, Feb. 26, at 5 p.m. It is an exciting new year. Thanks for being a part of it!

• Mary Becker is president of the Juneau School Board. Peggy Cowan is superintendent of the Juneau School District.

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