Panel: Publicity, preferences could diversify school programs

Recommendation is to give low-income minority students some admissions preference

Posted: Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Juneau School District should publicize its districtwide programs better and use an admissions preference for low-income minority students, some members of a task force said Tuesday.

The group of educators and parents is preparing recommendations on how to make some of the small, districtwide programs better match the district's diversity in ethnicities and income levels.

The Juneau Community Charter School and Montessori programs are underrepresented in Native and low-income students.

About 24 percent of the district's students are Native, the district said. About 5 percent of the Montessori students and 16 percent of the charter school students are Native, according to the district.

The district categorizes students as low-income if they receive free or reduced-price lunches. By that criteria, about 16 percent of the district's students are low-income, compared with 3 percent in the Montessori program and the charter school.

Each program in the district should include at-risk children, said Barbara Thurston, a parent on the subcommittee that considered student access to the programs.

The major reason that some programs don't reflect the district's diversity is that parents don't know about them, Thurston said.

"There needs to be a concerted effort by the school district to get the information to families," she said.

The subgroup looked at other barriers to access such as transportation and application procedures.

Ideally, any child could take a school bus to any program, but the district's finances don't allow for that, Thurston said. But the district might be able to transport more students to the programs by rerouting buses or letting younger children ride the high school buses, which would take them close to Harborview, where three of the programs are housed, she noted.

The subcommittee said the charter school's requirements that parents volunteer at the school could be a barrier.

The requirement is partly a result of philosophy - that parents should be involved in their school. But it's partly based on need: The school receives less funding per student than do regular schools.

Until funding is equalized, the charter school could supply slots for parents who can't fully meet the requirement, the subcommittee said.

The subcommittee also suggested changes in the district's lotteries by which openings are filled when there are more applications than slots.

The district now includes preferences for minorities and for siblings of current students.

The subcommittee tentatively recommended a preference specifically for students who are both minority and low-income, because that is a category at high risk of dropping out.

"Those are the kids who are most at risk. Those are the kids who are most underrepresented," Thurston said.

Margie Hamburger, a charter school parent on the equity subcommittee, said the district hasn't created a policy that supports and embraces parental choice in programs.

The Montessori and charter programs are "kept at arm's length from the district's embrace," she said.

The equity subgroup recommended more collaboration between the regular schools and the alternative programs. It also suggested that each program, including the regular schools, identify and publicize its "personality."

The group is scheduled to review more recommendations from 3 to 7 p.m. March 4.

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