It's understandable that our community, which has had essentially one high school for 50 years, is experiencing uncertainty and stress as we prepare to open Thunder Mountain High School and to do high school in a different way. I am hopeful that some perspective can help ease concerns and help our community move forward - together.
This will be the fourth new "school of choice" that I have opened and in every case the beginning was really rocky; some people questioned our direction, and some were adamantly opposed to each of these schools at the outset. Yet in every case, by year two, each school had attracted enthusiastic and strong student bodies as the community gained confidence in the unique school programs. And, within three years, each of these schools became the highest performing high school in its district and among the highest achieving schools in the state, based State Tests and ACT and/or SAT scores.
Attendance was at least 95 percent, and the graduation rate was 99 percent or higher. Part of this success was attributed to the fact that students were allowed to choose their school, they worked closely in small learning communities and they found integrated course work and curriculum meaningful and important.
Change is not easy, and I can understand why there is skepticism in Juneau about this new school and the new approach to high school learning. I hope that my experience can offer reassurance that the program design for the high schools in Juneau is based on solid research and on successful school organization and instructional practices from other high performing districts across the country.
Sadly, some harmful misinformation is being perpetuated about Thunder Mountain High School. One stereotype that's been put out there is that underachievers are being shunted to Thunder Mountain. This is false. In fact, Thunder Mountain student population nearly mirrors Juneau's population, and parallels almost exactly Juneau-Douglas High School's demographic makeup.
Another misconception is that the school program is limited and doesn't offer students a well-rounded or "general studies" education. The truth is that the students at TMHS will be taking the same courses that the JDHS students take; they can take advanced and AP courses and they will be expected to meet the same graduation requirements. The elective choices are rich and varied; art, drama, and music will be an important part of the TMHS program.
What will make the program of study unique and of high interest is that the students in grades 10-12 will be clustered together in "themed teams" or academies populated with 100 students who will work with groups of teachers who interconnect teaching and learning through a focus or theme that relates to students' interests and to the larger world. For instance, Global Expressions will focus general studies through the lens of literature, arts, and cultures while the other academy, Exploration and Discovery, will focus on math, science, and technology.
All ninth graders, no matter where they attend school, will participate in small learning communities, which were started this year at JDHS. Ninth grade is a pivotal year, and we principals want to ensure that freshmen immediately feel connected and get the support and guidance they need to be successful. Of course, that's important for teenagers, in general. That's why all students in all small learning communities at TMHS or JDHS will connect with an adviser who can serve as the "go-to" person for that student and his or her family. Advisories already have a successful track record of more than a decade at the alternative high school.
I believe that we can serve all learners at all levels with excellence. We can provide a rich choice of quality experiences for our high school students. We can enrich the lives of our youth by working together for our kids and their future.
• Patti Bippus is principal of Thunder Mountain High School.
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