Empire editorial: New high school brings chance for more choices

Posted: Sunday, April 01, 2007

Picking the name and the mascot for the new high school was the easy part. Now comes the tough assignment: figuring out what kind of education students will get there.

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A 35-member panel has until May to deliver a plan for high school education to the Juneau School Board.

Educators are looking not only at the curriculum of the new Thunder Mountain High School in the Mendenhall Valley, but also at that of Juneau-Douglas High School downtown and the alternative school, Yaakoosge Daakahidi.

The district has proposed five various shapes of curricula, with parents, students and teachers weighing in on them. Some of the proposals are surprisingly similar, and the district says the final blueprint may be a combination of two or more.

Some of the possibilities need to be dumped immediately.

Loser No. 1: dividing the schools by grade, with ninth- and 10th-graders on one campus and 11th- and 12th-graders on another. Younger students learn from upperclassmen, and upperclassmen are more likely to develop leadership skills on the same campus with their younger peers.

Another uncomfortable scenario is breaking schools down by "career tracks," with a focus on trade and voc-ed classes at one school and courses for the college-bound on another. Most teens are too young to be deciding on lifetime careers. Many struggle with that even in college.

Besides, all students should be encouraged to think about going to college. And the college-bound should get the chance to take classes in metalworking and auto mechanics if they're interested.

Yet another pitfall the district needs to avoid is letting sports drive decisions.

Some worry Juneau will lose its chance at state championships by creating two smaller sports teams with limited talent pools. That may be realistic, but it shouldn't be a major consideration.

While Juneau has a right to be proud of the many state titles it's won, it's far more important to give kids a well-rounded, rigorous education that prepares them for the working world.

A few things are essential for the high schools to succeed.

One is choice. The worst picture is two schools that look alike.

That would deny students the options of a large school, because both schools couldn't afford to offer as many class choices as one large campus. Nor could they reap the much-touted benefits of smaller schools because each school would be larger than what's often considered ideal for a small campus.

Instead, the district needs to develop different focuses and courses for each school, then allow students to choose between them - and let them switch if their focus changes.

Then two schools truly would mean more opportunities. And student bodies would not be divided along geographic lines. We don't need school rivalries intensifying the differences between downtown and valley residents.

The district is considering setting up smaller units within each campus, focusing on various interests. One school, for instance, might have an academy of business and technology while another concentrates on sciences and natural resources.

The other school might have an academy of arts and communication and another of architecture, engineering and construction.

Giving students the chance to move between academies would also allow more choice and exposure to more fields.

The new high school is giving the community a chance to shape classes and curriculum not only at Thunder Mountain, but also at JDHS. It's an opportunity that won't come again for a long time. Everyone who cares about education in Juneau should snatch it.

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