Local column: Measuring today's schools along tomorrow's experiences

Posted: Wednesday, March 12, 2008

When the new Thunder Mountain High School opens next fall, it's not likely to be free of all the unfriendly suspicions it's garnered during the past 10 years. But whose place is it to decide if the school is a success or a failure? And when will it be ready for its judgment day?

The road to building Juneau's second high school began in 1998 after voters rejected the initial plan to build a single high school in Mendenhall Valley. A year later we voted to build a second school. In 2003 we voted to make it larger. The next year we told the district it was too big. Five months after that we approved the design now being built and voted to finish all elements of the school last year.

Given all the energy invested in debating this project, there is little doubt that many of the adults who voted for or against it each time have strong opinions about the merits of the final product. And the school district administrators and teachers will always have a vested interest. Yet the people who should have the most to say about the meaning of the education received at TMHS will be the students. In their final analysis, it should have little to do with whether or not it was their school of choice.

The current controversy about enrollment preferences between the two schools might be examined as an example of the values and attitudes we model for the student population. Many parents expressed frustration after learning their child might not be placed in the schools they preferred. To deflect the spreading criticism, school administrators took the easy way out by deciding to honor the first choice of every student.

It seems we're implying to our youth that success is about getting what they want, similar to the Santa Claus-like tales we taught them as toddlers. Part of such expectations is a natural extension of our love for them. But when we are rigidly attached to our views of life, we have to be careful not to project these into hopes and dreams for our children. We do our youth a disservice by suggesting their high school years should be an automatic right of passage to an idealized future.

Success isn't a guarantee but a goal to work toward earnestly and honestly. If education is free from the possibility of disappointment and even failure, then we're not preparing them for a future that will deliver far greater setbacks than not having been selected to attend the high school of their choice. They aren't going be offered every job they apply for. They may not get into the college of their choice. And we can't save them from the possibility of emotional turmoil from broken relationships.

Even the best education possible won't erase the confusion teenagers feel about life. It's a time when they are intellectually and emotionally reaching for independence. They are supposed to be learning how to think for themselves while respecting the rights of others in a complex world of competing interests. They don't need the adult world defining precise lessons for them to learn, especially considering the many present-day problems we haven't been able to solve.

Too much predictability undermines the creative nature we all have. The clear and safe path to satisfaction is rarely exciting, whereas discovering success among riskier endeavors can inspire a person to reach heights not otherwise imagined. The skills and determination that can be gained along the roads less traveled are what students will benefit from when navigating this conflict-filled world that they seem destined to inherit.

The real judgment of TMHS will come years after the doors open when the students look back at their high school experience alongside a multitude of others. If they are like us, they'll have a mix of appreciation and regret. Hopefully their lives will be full enough so that four short teenage years aren't the dominant memory that influences their most important decisions. In the meantime, we might try to let go and trust that our youth are capable of learning from teachers who genuinely hope to guide them to well-earned and meaningful success.

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