Empire editorial: The wrong way to fill the halls of Thunder Mountain

Posted: Sunday, March 09, 2008

Imagine if, during the fierce debate over whether to build a second high school, supporters had billed it as the campus where Juneau sends students who are poor or Native.

Voters would have been horrified.

And yet Juneau School District officials have decided that's how they're going to flesh out the student body for Thunder Mountain High School, the $60 million Mendenhall Valley campus slated to open this fall.

Students have a choice as to whether they go to the new school or Juneau-Douglas High School downtown, and they've chosen JDHS over Thunder Mountain 3:1. That put district officials in a bind and parents in a huff because their kids may end up at a school they don't want to attend.

School administrators announced more than a week ago they have a new solution. Rather than use a lottery to decide who will go to which school, they'll send most of the new students and those who didn't turn in a school-choice questionnaire to Thunder Mountain.

They added that a large proportion of the students who didn't return their school-choice cards are poor and Native, and that they would be "perfect" for the small learning communities planned for Thunder Mountain.

District officials also said that previously JDHS had a higher proportion of poor and minority students than Thunder Mountain and by placing those who didn't complete their school-choice cards in the new school, they'll be leveling out those ratios on both campuses.

The district numbers, however, are questionable. For instance, they show a total of only eight multi-ethnic students in both schools.

The district's handling of this matter is exactly what some educators and parents did not want to see happen with a system in which school population is based on choice and not geographic boundaries. During the high school planning process, some people voiced their worry that disadvantaged kids would not be on a level playing field with the students whose parents are engaged in their education.

What about the kid whose single mom works two jobs and forgot to sign the school-choice card, as was required? What about the students whose family life is so chaotic that filling out a district questionnaire is the last thing on their minds?

Some parents and educators were afraid these kids wouldn't be heard. District officials assured them students who didn't fill out the choice questionnaire would be individually contacted to find out which school setting would work best for them.

Now the district seems to be responding to those who are loudest - those whose parents are active in their children's education. The people least likely to speak out are getting shunted to whatever's convenient for the district.

Some are also worried Thunder Mountain will get labeled as the school where poor or disengaged students are sent. If the school seems unpopular now, it's going to be even less popular over time, if the district doesn't work to dispel that image.

The concept of giving students the chance to choose their high school sounded like a good idea, but has been fraught with nothing but problems and controversy. Besides, students are often going to choose high schools for reasons that having nothing to do with a good education - like where their friends are, or which school has the best basketball team.

District officials need to come up with a better way to sort out who will go to which school.

If they can't come up with a way that's equitable and workable, then they need to go back to the drawing board. Perhaps they need to consider a system in which students go to a high school based on geographic location, making exceptions for kids who want to attend a program offered only at another campus.

But assigning the least engaged students to one campus isn't fair or good for the community. The district has got to come up with another way to fill the classrooms at Thunder Mountain.

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