My Turn: Will new high school make a difference?

Posted: Wednesday, January 22, 2003

It should come as no great surprise to voters of Juneau that some teacher leaders in this community are cynical about the prospect of a new high school in the valley. The issue of whether Juneau needs another high school is not a matter of downtown versus the Valley, and to pose it as such is simply divisive.

A public My Turn challenge by a local high school teacher charging that the proposed high school "is lacking educational vision" is specious, because as a teacher leader that spokesman should take responsibility for helping create such a vision.

Whether or not the population assumptions which led voters in 1999 to approve funds to construct a new high school are "erroneous," the fact remains that the downtown facility will remain an antiquated citadel from Juneau's past even when the current remodel is completed. Finally, the argument that building a new high school will cause financial hardship for the rest of Juneau's schools, taxpayers and businesses is misplaced speculation.

As one who has worked in all of Juneau's public schools over the last three years, I have come to value the high caliber of professionals this district has employed at all levels; administrators, teachers, and support personnel, in a wide variety of facilities. Additionally, experience at Floyd Dryden and Dzantik'i Heeni middle schools has given me some sense of the environmental contrast between a garish 1970s-era bunker and a dazzling, well-lit monument of hope for the future. The kids are the same, the staff is accommodating, but the community statement to each child about the value of education is different.

Blaming management for the crowded conditions at the current high school again misplaces responsibility, and while the current phase in the evolution of a final plan for a new high school may indeed be "too big for its britches," who can blame parents who want the best for their children?

There is a new reality that many educators in Juneau may not yet understand, as they are expected to jump from political bandwagon to bandwagon: The business of education is changing. On Jan. 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signed the latest reauthorization of what began in the 1960s as the "Elementary and Secondary Education Act," to what is now called the "No Child Left Behind Act of 2001." In this new law academic achievement standards (formerly called performance standards) must be described state-by-state and adequate yearly progress measured and proven in increments over the next 12 years.

Implications of this complicated and far-reaching bill are still being sorted out as states grapple with the task of determining testing instruments and implementation dynamics, but one thing is certain: Teachers will need every advantage they can muster to demonstrate sustained measurable learning - regardless of students' race or socioeconomic status - in order to remain in the profession.

I submit to the cynics that educational environment may play a very important role in reaching these new federal benchmarks. And, instead of being against every popular proposal because it runs counter to the way we've always done business in Juneau, perhaps it's time for the Beautiful People to consider new possibilities - a road out of town, a new capitol, additional value-added resource industry, and yes, a school system that inspires students to want to go on to higher education, and encounter a range of life experiences, when they graduate from high school with a meaningful diploma.

I graduated from East Anchorage High School some years before Clay Good graduated from good ol' JDHS, and it has taken a long time for me to get around to finishing requirements for Alaska certification as a teacher. That's because I spent many years doing things in Alaska that people in many other places could only imagine.

I look at the newly uncertain future faced by children in our schools today and realize my Alaskan education, teaching skills, maturity and experience might make a difference. This reality comes at a time when many others my age in the teaching profession are counting down to retirement.

That's what really matters when we consider building a new high school - will it make a difference? Will it help assure that no child is left behind?

Donn Liston came to Juneau in 1983 to work as a legislative aide. He earned a master's degree from UAS in 1989. He has worked for the Association of Alaska School Boards, NEA-Alaska, and finished required student teaching for K-8 certification in December.

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