First year of new high school system evaluated

Staff not confident with changes, but parents and students pleased

Posted: Monday, September 21, 2009

An independent report that evaluated the Juneau School District's first year implementing its Next Generation Plan shows that while the majority of parents and students are pleased with the district's new teaching model, a significant portion of staff is not.

Next Generation changed the way high school is taught in Juneau with the opening of a new high school, introducing small learning communities and academies that allow students to choose an area of interest in which they are taught.

The report, done by Fairbanks-based Goldstream Group Inc., blames much of the staff's lack of confidence in the new system during its first year on a natural aversity to change and their concerns over the way the plan is being implemented.

Parents and students did not have the same concerns.

A majority of parents were positive about implementation and noted it would take time to work out problems, the report said.

A highlight for the district is the report's finding that parents of Alaska Native students feel that small learning communities are meeting their children's academic needs.

Students at both schools in small learning communities reported knowing their teachers better, getting along better with their peers, and having a sense of belonging.

The report does not measure student achievement, but it projects that better relationships would improve achievement, especially among Alaska Natives since they are buying into the program.

Overall, the report found that although the plan's implementation has been challenging, the district is on its way to fulfilling its priorities.

Implementation during the first year was not as well organized as it should have been, Assistant Superintendent Laury Scandling said in answer to the staff's concerns outlined in the report.

She put the onus of implementation on principals and said the district would monitor for organized schedules and better communication this year.

Juneau-Douglas High School Principal Jim Kuhlmann is new to the district.

Thunder Mountain High School Principal Patti Bippus said the first year of Next Generation was difficult, and was made more so by opening a brand new school.

Bippus noted that advisory - a central concept of the new system that gives teachers a chance to get to know students - was rated low in the report.

"It wasn't nearly as organized as we wanted it to be" last year, Bippus said. "We're trying to improve it."

Bippus also said she developed a comprehensive staff handbook and is working on better communication. She said a few disgruntled teachers left last year and praised the entire staff this year as "energetic and really interested in helping kids be successful."

Scandling called the Next Generation Plan and opening of a new high school "seismic" changes for the district. She agreed with the report that dealing with changes impacted the staff's perceptions.

As a former teacher who worked for nine years at JDHS, she said teachers in general are not trained to be part of a team but in a way that causes "70 doors to slam when the bell rings." For some, new concepts requiring collaboration are difficult to embrace, she said.

"When you believe you have strong standards, when you think what you're doing helps most kids, it's natural to say, 'Hey if it's not broken why are we fixing it?'" she said.

To make their report, Goldstream Group used small focus groups comprised of students, parents and teachers, plus written and telephone surveys of staff and parents. Most of the responses were collected last spring.

The company provides evaluation and grant writing services to school districts and nonprofits. The report cost $27,500.

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



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