My Turn: One school system does not fit all

Posted: Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Our community and the Juneau School Board deserve more information than the one-sided front-page story in Monday's Juneau Empire and Superintendent Peggy Cowan's My Turn supporting the Next Generation committee's recommendation to radically restructure how all Juneau high school students learn.

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My children are grown, and I am retired from teaching at Juneau-Douglas High School, so I don't have a dog in the fight. But I do have the perspective of 32 years as a student and teacher at JDHS.

I also have the perspective of a member of the Next Generation committee that spent many, many hours discussing what turned out to be the foregone conclusion of the school district administration.

Though some on the committee agree and support Next Generation consultant David Schmidt and Cowan's recommendation to operate both schools the same way, many of us recognized we were just a cosmetic committee posing as a process with a real purpose. It was just smoke and mirrors and our time was wasted.

I also have the perspective of someone who recently traveled to other cities to observe several of the kind of schools that Cowan and Schmidt are promoting.

Cowan suggests that themed academies and an advisory system will reduce the dropout rate. Although Sunday's JDHS graduation rate of 75 percent shows the need for innovative programs that address the needs of the 25 to 30 percent who do not thrive in high school, Cowan's hope is not a promise.

The schools that I, and several of my colleagues visited, were all in huge districts in the San Francisco Bay Area, where students had dozens of choices of schools to attend. Not one of these experimental, themed-academy schools had yet demonstrated a measurable reduction in their dropout rates.

Here are some of the other problems with this recommended experimental model. Every hour teachers spend in an advisory role is an hour not spent teaching electives or required academic classes. It further taxes the limited time teachers need to teach your children well.

All the themed academies we visited had fewer elective classes, less art, less music, fewer business courses, fewer vocational/trade classes and fewer counselors because their professional resources were squandered by having teachers provide advisory time for all students.

Themed academies use block scheduling that limit what few electives are available for students to take. What if your child is in an academy that is scheduled during band or orchestra or auto shop or ceramics? Block scheduling has some advantages, but flexibility and options are not among them.

Another dynamic we witnessed in themed academies was that seasoned, high-quality teachers deserted them. These teachers could see the flaws in the system and left them to new teachers who were desperate for jobs. The academies I visited had a high degree of student and teacher turnover and a high burnout factor as teachers mature, start families or seek better places to teach.

Themed academies and the advisory system are the "trend du jour." It's an experimental model that has some promise under certain circumstances. But it is risky at best to imagine that this model is so good that we should make it the only model for how we educate all of Juneau's high school students.

Students are all so different. If one size does not fit all, why does Cowan recommend we have the exact same program in both schools? Is our only choice between themed academies with an advisory system in the Mendenhall Valley or themed academies with an advisory system downtown? That's like allowing your children to choose between red pajamas or blue pajamas at bedtime. What if it's not bedtime for some of our students? It's a false choice.

Since we are going to have two high schools, why not make them very different so there is a real and meaningful choice for Juneau families?

Let's not put all our educational eggs into one experimental basket. Let's preserve what we do well in one school and experiment in the other, so that students and parents have real choices.

• Clay Good is a Juneau resident.

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