A group of community members and educators meeting Tuesday to review the Juneau School District's priorities recommended focusing on dropouts, among several other topics.
Every year the Juneau School Board sets several topics, called strategies, that it wants the district to focus its energy and resources on. Committees, acting like think tanks for the district, meet throughout the school year to look at data and suggest solutions for topics.
The group meeting Tuesday at the Juneau Yacht Club reviewed the committees' work. It recommended changing a current strategy from a general concern with student achievement in English and math to one that examines why students drop out and what programs from kindergarten through 12th grade would reduce the dropout rate.
About 35 percent of Juneau-Douglas High School freshmen will have dropped out before the end of senior year.
But the biggest discussion was about whether poverty should be one of the district's focuses. One current strategy emphasizes Native and other minorities' academic success. An effort to add children of poverty to that list was voted down by a 3-1 margin among the roughly 25 people present.
Some were concerned that there were many reasons why students do poorly and that the focus shouldn't be on one factor. Others felt that including children of poverty with Natives and other minorities would link them in the public's mind, as if every minority person were poor.
"I see a range of different reasons why children aren't being successful, and poverty is one of them," said Auke Bay Elementary Principal Dave Newton.
But it's often the working families just above the poverty line who get the least school services, Newton said. Other categories of children, such as those needing mental health services, also are underserved, he said.
"I want to be part of a district that focuses on all children who are failing," he said.
But supporters of a focus on poverty said those children don't have a voice in the district and need attention.
"I see the struggles that they have and their families have, and they are not necessarily a voice that comes to School Board meetings or meetings like this," Gastineau Elementary teacher Cinda Stanek said.
Students who qualify for free or reduced price lunches, (the district's only gauge of poverty,) are more likely to do poorly on standardized tests than any other subgroup of students, except for special ed students, according to a district report. The district compiles test scores by ethnicity and categories such as poverty and special ed.
"They're kind of an invisible group, and they're kind of invisible in our strategies," Harborview Elementary teacher Fred Hiltner said about children of poverty.
The cultures of poverty, the middle class and the upper class are just as real as ethnic cultures and they impact education, argued Kathi Yanamura, principal at Harborview Elementary.
The group recommended that poverty be a strand in all of the district's strategies, but not a separate strategy. Other strategies deal with staff development, school climate and community partnerships.
The strategy committees are meeting this morning to collate Tuesday's suggestions with their own ideas before presenting them to the School Board.
"It helps us look at the data collectively with the voice of the community and different perspectives," School Board member Phyllis Carlson said of Tuesday's meeting.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.