My turn: School choice confusion could have been avoided

Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Empire's Sunday editorial on the Juneau School District's latest plan to fill up Thunder Mountain High School is almost right on target. If the district had done what the voters expected and built a new general studies high school in Mendenhall Valley, with attendance determined by boundaries, all the confusion and chaos of the past year could have been avoided.

The district leadership made three critical decisions last year that led to the present mess. First, the district decided to leap headlong into a new educational program, in which all high school students in both schools were going to be required to attend "themed academies" based on career choices and other interests. Second, offering different programs at the different schools led to the decision that there should be no boundaries, so students could choose where to attend. Third, in arriving at these dramatic departures from the existing system, the district leadership followed a consultant-driven planning process instead of engaging in meaningful consultation with the community.

Last fall, it became apparent that the district's plan was out of touch and unacceptable to the vast majority of students and parents. "Themed academies" are, without a doubt, excellent choices for some students - but they are not a good choice for all students. The Juneau-Douglas High School general studies program has consistently done a good job of preparing students who are interested in college and other post-secondary educational options. The community is not prepared to abandon this program, and for good reason. It takes a critical mass of students and teachers to maintain the full range of courses that college-bound students need to take. The general studies program provides those choices. The "themed academies," despite the district's claims to the contrary, cannot do so in a school district as small as ours.

After hearing from the public, the district, to its credit, agreed to continue general studies at JDHS. But despite the public outcry, the district refused to offer general studies at Thunder Mountain. Instead, it decided Thunder Mountain will be operated entirely on the "academy" system. To choose Thunder Mountain means to choose the "themed academies."

To nobody's surprise, except the district's and the Juneau School Board majority's, four out of five students signed up for JDHS. The result is a significant imbalance. Juneau-Douglas will be crowded, with large class sizes; Thunder Mountain will be half-empty, with small class sizes. One School Board member recently said it will "be like a private school." To fill up the vacant seats and empty classrooms, as the Empire pointed out, the district plans to assign those students who did not "choose" because they are poor, disengaged or in difficult family situations to the new high school. That is absurd, and will only increase the disparity between the two high schools.

The Empire is right that abandoning geographic boundaries was one decision that led to this situation, but the fundamental problem was not offering programs at both schools that are acceptable to the community. If the programs are comparable and are equally good, the student population should level out in short order. As long as there are different programs at the schools, however, students will properly demand the right to choose the program that is best for them, and those choices must be honored. Forcing students into one program or the other for the district's convenience is flat wrong.

In my view the biggest failing in this process has been the district's refusal to engage in meaningful, respectful dialogue with the community. The consultant-driven approach chosen by the district's leadership was flawed from the outset. It resulted in the arrogant and dismissive "We know what is best for you," "We're going to stay the course" and "There is just one small group of parents afraid of change" attitude that we have heard over the past months.

The district does not recognize that it is out of touch with the community's expectations and hopes for the new high school. We have a half-empty school as a result. If the district's central office and the school board majority will not listen to the public, and do not or cannot act in a responsible and responsive manner, it is time for a change of leadership.

• Dick Monkman is a Juneau resident and parent of two students in the Juneau School District.



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