Looking back on TMHS's first year

Students and staff say small learning communities are working out well

Posted: Sunday, June 07, 2009

Without seniors or a graduation ceremony to celebrate the end of the school year, students and staff at Thunder Mountain High School found different ways to mark the end of school this week.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

They gathered for a group picture Thursday morning in front of the new building, then students milled around the commons signing yearbooks they received earlier in the day. In an assembly Thursday morning, each student was recognized, and an ice cream social helped round out activities for the freshmen, sophomores and juniors - about 450 students - that made up the first classes to attend the controversial new high school.

Concerned with community disagreement over whether Thunder Mountain was needed, and opposition from taxpayers amidst ballooning construction costs, the new school faces high hurdles as it tries to carve out an identity separate from Juneau-Douglas High School.

Administrators told nay-sayers that smaller classes at TMHS and individual attention for each student would address the district's high drop-out rate. They said it would be good for the kids.

It's too early to tell if the new school will keep kids from dropping out, but those who taught and learned there this year said the small learning communities are working. The school has a friendly, open atmosphere where students and teachers know each other, they said.

"I like the system, it's easier to learn in," said 10th-grader Kelsey Krebsbach, who with her friend and classmate, Madi Wells, reported having a good year at TMHS. "I feel more comfortable here, and the people are more friendly and welcoming."

Both 16-year-olds will return in the fall as juniors. High schoolers can choose where they attend classes in Juneau, no matter where they live.

At the same time, the first year at TMHS was marked by disorganization that some said they expected in the process of setting up a whole new school. Several teachers and students called it "chaos." A low point for students in sports and activities was shuttling from classes in the valley to practices downtown at the established school.

"I did not like the combined sports this year," said Wells, who plays softball and volleyball. "Practice was too crowded and there was not enough time to play."

Principal Patti Bippus said the climate established at Thunder Mountain is a first-year highlight.

"We don't have a lot of fighting or arguing ... you walk down the halls and kids say hello and smile. You see a lot of intermingling of groups of friends and there's not a caste system here," Bippus said.

Several students spoke of the friendly environment and said it allowed them to feel more comfortable.

"The atmosphere is really nice," said 17-year-old junior Samantha Honsinger. "It's smaller here and you get to know everyone more. It seems kinder."

If the students appreciated the different model, teachers reveled in it. The school is physically separated into small learning communities, within each of which a team of four core teachers share students. The set up allows them to consult with each other on student progress, work together on projects and get to know their students better, teachers said.

"In 19 years, I've never gotten to know my students as well as I did here," science teacher Erik Lundquist said. He attributed that to small learning groups.

English teacher Casady Herding called the year the best of her 16-year career.

"The opportunity to collaborate with my colleagues and talk about our students and identify those that really need support ... has been so exciting," Herding said. "It's different from the past, where you just go in your room and shut the door and teach."

Not all of the students liked the new model or the fact all their teachers knew how they were doing in other subjects. Some students said they didn't like group projects, which seemed disorganized or undirected to them.

"Some say it's like middle school because we all know each other so well. The personalization, students don't like that," Herding said. "It was so out of their comfort zones, some wanted to go back to where they're comfortable."

Honsinger, the junior who called the climate at TMHS "kinder," decided to return to JDHS next year as a senior.

"This whole school's built on community and I already built my community at JDHS," she said. "Academics-wise, I'm used to the way things are run there and I really wanted free periods."

Bippus is not allowing seniors to have free periods at TMHS, requiring work study, community service or college-level classes instead. The principal said it's one reason about half of the junior class decided to go back to JDHS as seniors next year.

Thunder Mountain started this school year with 97 juniors but expects 55 seniors when school starts in the fall. Bippus and other administrators said they expected the defections, and that the competitive sports teams at the more established school are a large reason.

"If you have a senior or junior and they have a chance to continue to play with the Crimson Bears ... and you could be on that varsity team in your senior year, it's completely understandable that would be your point of view," said Assistant Superintendent Laury Scandling. "In the next two years, like any small town, I think you'll see healthy, fun sports and activities at Thunder Mountain."

About $1 million in additional funding for high school sports and activities means the TMHS Falcons will have their own teams next school year. The football team is already practicing, and Scandling said a coach for every major sport has been hired for the school.

As the school neared completion last fall, the district faced a challenge when enrollment fell short of the targeted 500 students. High-schoolers overwhelmingly chose JDHS and it seemed the brand new, $70-plus million high school wasn't even attractive to those it was built for - the kids.

"Not as many kids signed up as we wanted," Bippus said. "A lot of people didn't want their kids to go here; they thought the school would fail."

The controversy, while mostly political and hard-fought between the adults, affected kids who were the first to learn there, Bippus said. She praised the students and their families who chose TMHS in its first year for exemplifying a "pioneering spirit" to try something new.

Social studies teacher Gretchen Kriegmont said the controversy surrounding the opening is still evident.

"I feel like some have been supportive and others have not given the school a chance," he said. "But it's time to move on now and give all our students support in their academic adventures."

The exact same number of incoming freshmen - 197 - signed up for each high school next year, and Thunder Mountain will have 590 students. Scandling said the division is based largely on where kids live.

A recent projection by a local economist shows district enrollment continuing to drop over the next few years to about 1,400 in 2011, so that each high school will have 700-750 students, Scandling said.

Scandling said it's too early to say whether the new high school will meet the district's goal of reducing drop-outs.

Comprehensive test scores comparing the two schools were not available as of Friday, but early results from the 10th grade High School Qualifying Exam show TMHS doing better than state averages and the district as a whole in reading and math, and falling behind state averages by six points in writing.

The first year of transition brought grief, stress, confusion, dissonance and disruption, and there is still a period of adjustment for the kids and the community, Scandling said.

"The high school had been the focal point in our community for half a century. Gold Medal, the graduation ceremony ... we have local leaders who graduated 40 years ago from that high school," she said. "JDHS had its staff almost split in half. It was stressful, like a family splitting."

But Scandling said adding a high school will multiply opportunities for kids and multiply the chance they will stay in school and graduate.

She said the time to answer the question whether the new school is working will be three years from this week, when the first freshman class graduates from TMHS.

The school district is completing a formal external evaluation that is due out in August.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.

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