Big changes in store for new school

School Board will review alternative plans at meeting

Posted: Monday, June 04, 2007

Odds are looking good that the high school experience in Juneau will change after Tuesday night - several Juneau School Board members said they expect to vote in favor of an alternative to the arcane educational structure in place for the last 100 years.

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Following a lengthy process of study, public comment and review, a 35-member advisory committee recommended in May that Juneau completely alter its structure and teaching methods when Thunder Mountain High School opens in 2008.

Among many other recommendations, the committee's plan calls for two "comprehensive reformed" high schools to join the already alternative Yaakoosge Daakahidi in educating Juneau's teens with a focus on life after high school.

"Reformed" could become the understatement of the year.

Old school

Members of the committee believe that the breakdown of the current system stems from a failing, factory-like, clock-in-clock-out setting that is simply unable to engage today's pampered, self-indulgent teenagers.

For more information

• Full committee proposal and recommendations can be found at

• The School Board meets at6 p.m. Tuesday at Juneau-Douglas High School library.

According to the committee, 68 students quit school as sophomores and juniors during the 2005-06 school year.

Poor grades jeopardized Sunday's graduation for nearly 100 seniors.

Disengaged students tell those who ask that they left because no one noticed them, and no one cared if they were there or not, according to teachers and officials.

Juneau-Douglas High School teachers each have a rotating student load of nearly 150, and counselors have up to 400 students each.

Bernie Sorenson, JDHS principal and committee member, said kids today are hardly challenged by the same old tasks that once challenged their parents and grandparents; some students see those tasks as irrelevant and are bored by them.

Rather than force today's teens to conform to the old-school, the smarter approach is to reinvent the school system, Sorenson said.

"Education needs to change to meet the kids' needs, not the other way around," she said.

Sorenson favors the reformed version of high school for the future of Juneau and its children.

"We have to recognize that we have a lot of talented kids," she said. "It's nothing for a student to multitask in ways that we don't even understand."

Students say they would be more interested in the drudgery of course work in areas required by law if the school allowed them also to take courses akin to each student's passion.

"They asked for some bliss," Sorenson said.

New school

If the School Board agrees on Tuesday, Juneau's version of education reform will materialize as six "theme based learning academies," wherein students from grades 10 to 12 join in "small learning communities" ranging in size up to 150 students with five teachers each. The new-school is expected to harness the bored and disaffected.

The committee offered examples of academies in health and human services, architecture and engineering, arts and communications, and science and natural resources.

They still take all the courses required each year along with one or two about their passion, Sorenson said.

The district will host no geographical boundaries, and students will decide which school they attend. Entering freshmen will belong to a core class geared to help them adjust to the rigors and expectations of high school. The plan allows for students to make mistakes and recover.

"Currently a lot don't get up," said Sorenson.

"Most kids are not ready for high school when they get here," Sorenson said. "They are capable but lack the problem-solving skills and work ethic."

While student choice is a top consideration in the proposed reforms, the programs allow a student to change academies once a year.

"Too many switches can work in the opposite direction," Sorenson said.

The effect

After countless hours of work, the committee said the end goal is to foster success for all 1,800 students, not just the 1,200 already winning.

They say that the new plan will give more choice, directly involve the student, and create a "personal and caring environment" infused with "mutual respect", "open communication" and "shared responsibility" in a "collaborative effort."

Sorenson said the end goal is to have teachers know their students' capabilities, weaknesses, interests and use all the information to guide the students into work or further education.

A 21-page document sent to the School Board claims, "Our graduates will be confident, responsible, resilient, and prepared with 21st-century skills for careers or education in Alaska and beyond."

With all the hopes for the newly proposed curriculum, the committee did not offer any actual classroom content or an implementation plan.

Following the first presentation of the plan in May, the School Board asked to see an implementation plan for the lofty project before a final vote.

• Greg Skinner can be reached at

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