Choice in Education

Posted: Sunday, February 10, 2008

The deadline for picking a high school is this Wednesday and some of Juneau's high school students are feeling overwhelmed.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"It's constantly on my mind. It doesn't matter where I am," said Sheryce Marshall, a ninth-grade student at Juneau-Douglas High School. "Being a ninth grader, you have so much on your mind, the last thing you need to worry about is picking a new high school."

Many parents aren't faring much better, with some saying they are worried their students' impending decision will "affect the rest of their lives."

The choice is a new one for Juneau's students. The district's new $60 million Mendenhall Valley high school, Thunder Mountain, is due to open next school year and most high school students will be split between the two campuses.

Only incoming ninth, 10th, and 11th grade students have to choose between JDHS and TMHS. Incoming seniors will be taught at JDHS or the district's alternative school.

Additionally, some students will have to choose a new "learning academy," which is a small learning group that specializes in a certain area.

TMHS will offer two academies: One will be humanities-based and the other math- and science-based. Most JDHS students will have to choose between a general studies program that is not an academy and a technical-training-based academy.

The themed academies will have five or six teachers working together to teach 100 to 150 students for two or three years.

The academies will be open only to incoming 10th, 11th and 12th graders. Incoming freshmen will be in their own smaller learning groups.

District officials have been running a full-court press in recent days to answer the questions of confused students and anxious parents, who turned out en masse last week to three information sessions.

Superintendent Peggy Cowan stressed to parents at one of the information sessions that the academies were more similar than different and that all students would have to meet core requirements to graduate. She said the goal of the new programs was to give students more choices in their education, in an attempt to make school more relevant to them.

"It's an exciting time. It's an intentional time," Cowan said. "These changes are about opportunity, about choice and about success for students."

District officials say there is no right or wrong decision, but some will be "more comfortable" than others.

"To me, you can't lose," JDHS Principal Bernie Sorenson said.

But many parents said they were skeptical if students really would have a choice, especially if the district has to use a lottery to determine student placement.

District officials said they would use a lottery if the demand for either high school exceeded the available space. The lottery would be random, district officials said, except a preference would be given to students who lived within 1.5 miles walking distance from either of the two schools or to those living in the district's farthest outlying areas.

"Not everyone will get this choice," Assistant Superintendent Charla Wright said. "We hope it works out, but there are no guarantees."

Some parents said they were disappointed that the school would not be giving preference in the lottery for high-school-age siblings.

Heidi Graves said she will have three students in high school next year, and four students the year after. She said she told her kids, "It's one or the other. We are not going to do two schools."

Graves said she would appeal if her kids were separated.

"It's all about choice, but in the end it's a lottery," Graves said.

Some parents and students also have criticized the district for not giving students and parents enough time to choose between schools and academies, but district officials have said they need extra time to contact parents of students who don't submit their choice by the deadline.

Other concerns raised by parents and students included questions about what the new bus system will look like, and which school will offer competitive high school sports.

Officials said the district's buses will serve both schools, regardless of where students live.

And only JDHS will have sports teams that compete against other schools next year, but students from both campuses will be eligible to join JDHS teams. In the following school year, both high schools will offer competitive sports and students will be restricted to the teams of the school they attend.

• Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or

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