Racism, dropouts and a 2nd high school

Posted: Wednesday, February 11, 2004

I am very disappointed some members of the community want to stop construction of a second high school. Their petition, if successful, will increase the dropout rate, increase racial tensions and reduce education opportunity for the minority, disadvantaged and at-risk students of the Juneau-Douglas community.

Juneau-Douglas High School has an extremely high dropout rate of 35 percent. JDHS had 1,605 students as of early February 2004 with 864 students dropping out since the seventh grade. Each of those 864 students would have brought in $4,169 of state funding, or a potential total of $3,602,016 of additional funding per year.

Instead of writing off 864 students, we need to work to bring them back into the school system.

Some want to stop construction of a second high school until the current facility houses 2,100 students. If the 864 students had not dropped out we would already have a student population of 2,469 students. Our student population does not need to grow; we need to provide facilities and programs to keep them in the school system.

The petitioners ignore the fact that 60 percent of the construction cost will be reimbursed by the state and state funding to operate the second high school will be increased. They overlook the significant gain in school funding if we retain more of our students and they ignore the fact that Juneau has always grown, sometimes slowly, but it has always grown.

The school district has given clear and concise answers to the questions of program offerings, a credible operating budget and optimum school size. The fact is all students do better in smaller, less-crowded schools. Two high schools will relieve the overcrowding, improve every student's chance to participate in activities, and provide an educational atmosphere in which at risk students are more likely to stay in school and succeed.

The petitioners ignore the fact that JDHS and our middle schools are dangerously overcrowded now; overcrowding that is physically uncomfortable and leads to increased tension and stress. When students are stressed they seek someone to blame and minorities tend to be the scapegoat.

Two high schools will provide our students with enough room that an improved educational atmosphere can be developed and the levels of racial tension will drop. This will give our students time and space to learn together. It will also give our community a chance to address the broader social problems that are reflected in the high school racism incidents.

It would be shortsighted to stop construction of a second high school when the cost to the community will be increased racial tensions, an increased dropout rate and the loss of state reimbursement for construction.

The need for a second high school is clear. The funding to build and operate a second high school is secure and the benefits to the community have been demonstrated. We can't wait and our students can't wait.

• Randy Wanamaker is a member of the Juneau City and Borough Assembly and a former Juneau-Douglas High School dropout.

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