District says it will honor high school choices

Posted: Friday, February 29, 2008

High school students will be getting their first choice of which building and program they will enroll in next year, according to a new plan by the Juneau School District.

Most incoming high school students had to choose recently between which school they wanted to attend. Most chose the district's current downtown school, Juneau-Douglas High School, over the new $60 million Thunder Mountain High School, which is scheduled to open this fall in the Mendenhall Valley.

The district had said it would likely have a lottery to place students at TMHS, which they said needed to have about 500 students to have enough teachers to offer a full range of courses. Only about 282 students chose that school as their first choice.

But on Thursday the district told the Juneau School Board about its new plan, which does not use a lottery.

New students to the district and those who did not make a school choice will be assigned, for the most part, to TMHS to bolster its numbers, school officials said.

The district also plans a marketing push in coming days to try and convince some students to switch their choice from JDHS to the new school.

Of the students who didn't make a choice, about 100 will go to TMHS, while only about 17, who live within 1.5 miles of JDHS or in North Douglas or Thane, will be assigned to the old high school. The same geographic criteria will be used to assign new students to a school, officials said.

Officials said that there was a large proportion of minority and poorer students in the group of students who had not made a school choice and that they would be "perfect" in the small-learning groups, called academies, at TMHS.

Superintendent Peggy Cowan said the district considered several options as to how to fill up the new school, including housing programs such as the district's alternative high school or the Montessori program there. But she said the current plan was the best way to honor the choices of parents and students.

"We think that this will decrease the anxiety a lot," Cowan said, alluding to concern many parents had expressed recently about their students being involuntarily placed at TMHS.

Some parents have said they weren't willing to send their students to TMHS because it only offered academies, which they were skeptical would work.

Board member Mark Choate said that district officials were "wedded" to the idea of having academies at TMHS and were "(cramming) it down" the throats of parents and students.

"You can see from the numbers that this is not working," Choate said.

He asked why there couldn't be a general studies program at TMHS, similar to the one being offered at JDHS that drew, by far, the biggest number of votes from students who had a choice.

District officials said they would either need to put 700 students at TMHS or do away with one of their learning academies to have a general studies program.

Laury Scandling, principal of the alternative school, asked the board to "stay the course" and said that academies had a proven track record and would benefit the district's students.

District officials also said they would try to explain to the public in coming days that academies offered a complete education and were not drastically different from a general studies program.

Board member Margo Waring asked the district what its plan was if it was unable to assign enough students to fill up TMHS, but Assistant Superintendent Charla Wright said the district was taking the process "one step at a time."

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