District is thinking 'outside of the box'

My turn

Posted: Monday, June 04, 2007

"Think outside the box." That's what a recent writer to the Juneau Empire urged in her letter regarding the proposal to restructure high school education when Thunder Mountain High School opens in 15 months. That's exactly what the 35-member community committee did as it met for nearly 40 hours over six months.

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After looking at local statistics about graduation, achievement and extracurricular involvement, the group of parents, students, educators, university officials and business owners recognized that Juneau should not keep doing high school the way it has been done. We're losing too many kids along the way.

The group then read about how other schools are successfully tackling drop-out rates and achievement gaps. In the meantime, a series of open houses were held at schools and other places to get feedback from the public. There were strong feelings about not dividing the community, about making school work for kids who aren't connecting and about offering challenging classes at both locations.

The recommendations to the board from "The Next Generation: Our Community, Our Kids," answer those concerns and, indeed, are outside the box.

Specifically:

• There are no geographic boundaries to divide the community into town versus valley.

• Kids and their families can choose a school based on its special offerings or its proximity. Busing will be provided as needed.

• Each school will develop around three focus areas (possibilities could include arts, health sciences, technology, etc.) so that kids in grades 10-12 can experience specialized classes which connect to our community. Even though upper-grade students will be involved in a "themed academy," they can pursue electives, and advanced placement courses will be offered at both schools.

• In ninth grade, students will be on teams with four to six teachers. The freshman year is a risky transitional time when dropping out behaviors (such as skipping and flunking classes) get serious. A team of teachers working together can stay on top of students' attendance and grades and, as they get to know a student, help them choose a themed academy for the next year.

• Every kid will have an adult advocate. This advisory system is a practice common among high schools that have reduced drop-out rates. The advocate will help a small group of students get to know one another and figure out a route to graduation.

It's understood that simply dividing current staff and students doesn't reduce class size, however, an advisory system and less-crowded conditions will go a long way toward making sure that no student slips through the cracks.

• Extracurricular activities will be offered at both schools. Students tell us that often it's the sports and activities that keep them in school. Expanding those opportunities can connect more kids to school. Funding sports is an expensive proposition, even in a generous town such as Juneau. The committee recognized that adequate, stable, equitable funding for sports and activities must be developed.

• Finally, while a 9/10-11/12 split was suggested in some public feedback, the committee discovered that Juneau could lose more than a million dollars in school funding and that such a division doesn't help the drop-out rate in the few places it's used.

I urge the public to become familiar with the "Next Generation" proposal (visit www.nextgenerationjuneau.com). We have the chance to remake high school in this town - not just for the sake of "thinking outside the box," but for the sake of our children.

• Peggy Cowan is superintendent of the Juneau School District.



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