My Turn: Family landlocked in an overstressed school system

Posted: Sunday, September 19, 2004

Our family moved to Juneau from the Seattle area last month. My teenage daughter's old high school had 1,200 students but started at the 10th grade. Junior high went through ninth. I enrolled our daughter at Juneau-Douglas High School and she began her junior year. Since then, I have discovered that daily life as a high school student must seem absolutely overwhelming.

Just getting from one class to another, wading through hundreds of other bodies, elbow to elbow. I've heard there haven't been enough seats for all the kids, but local kids say "wait a week and the class numbers will go down." What does that mean? Where else do these kids go?

There is only one lunch time scheduled for the 1,800 students and too many kids crammed into a classroom expected to learn under these circumstances. My daughter couldn't get some classes that she was expecting to take this year because those classes were full. It was an advanced history class. I asked if they offered college courses for students to take if classes were full? The counselor said, "Yes." I asked if the high school pays for the college course. She said, "No." How is that when schools in the Lower 48 states provide college courses for kids who show potential to go on to college, are in high school and can excel past their peers in certain areas? Most high schools have "Running Start" programs where kids can take college courses while in high school. How does Juneau get away with this? How are the kids expected to get ahead, let alone be ready for a good college education without having to complete prerequisites to get into college-level courses (if they can't get into certain classes in high school because there were too many students)?

My only theory about where those students go after that first week of school is out. JDHS is bursting at the seams, and where else are the students to go? I now understand why the drop out rate is so high. Stress is high among the students and the thinly spread staff. If this continues I fear for all Juneau high school students who:

1. May fall through the cracks because they're quiet or too shy to ask for the extra help they need.

2. Don't achieve their potential because they aren't being watched closely and their progress isn't being checked regularly.

3. Don't get the classes they need to go on to college.

4. Have a hard time learning in this kind of environment.

What impact does this have on teachers? Can you imagine grading that many papers? Is it possible to be a great teacher, to do a great job and be spread this thin and be effective? I'll bet burn-out occurs to even the best teachers under these circumstances. Perhaps more teachers should be hired.

I was really hoping the transition of moving would be easier for my teenager. These conditions are absolutely abhorrent and unfortunately we are a captive audience because where else do we send our children? We are landlocked.

Our children should be of utmost importance. I don't care whether you build a new school or add onto the existing one. Perhaps you could have a junior high seventh through ninth grades. That would cut down numbers at the high school. Where are the people who can change these circumstances? Isn't there a political body somewhere that has this power? More room is needed and something must be done now for Juneau's future high school children. I challenge anyone to walk through the halls during class transition and then tell the teenagers of JDHS that there isn't a reason to move immediately to change their circumstances.

• Mona Waddington is a former middle school teacher and a mother to two children. She moved to Juneau with her husband on a U.S. Coast Guard assignment.

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