Cohen cites his experience and promises continuity

On the ballot Juneaus Oct. 7 city election includes races for mayor, two Juneau Assembly seats, five Juneau School Board seats and two ballot propositions. Other Empire coverage includes: Thursday-Friday: Profiles of the other School Board candidates. Sunday: Profiles of two candidates for mayor, plus the League of Women Voters Guide. Monday, Sept. 29: Profile of two District 2 candidates for the Assembly. Tuesday, Sept. 30: Profile of one District 1 candidate for the Assembly.

Posted: Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Juneau School Board President Chuck Cohen, one of two incumbents running for re-election this year, says he brings sound judgment and a broad range of life experiences to the board.

"Now I've served for four years, what I bring to it is a continuity of knowledge as an incumbent," he said.

With five of seven School Board seats open this election, and 12 candidates seeking those seats, Cohen said he's running partly to maintain the school district's program through continuity of management and policy-making.

"It just takes too long to learn to do this job well for the public," he said.

Cohen said as a businessman he has accounting experience and familiarity with budgets, and he knows the Juneau school system as a parent who has put two children through it.

"Overall, as a general statement, I think the quality of the public educational system in Juneau is well above the norm," he said. "It is a fundamentally solid system with many dedicated professionals."

But, Cohen said, he also has worked to improve the 1,600-student Juneau-Douglas High School, which is stressed by serious overcrowding. He has advocated for the planned high school at Dimond Park in the Mendenhall Valley.

JDHS is a "hard building to be managed, and I think it will be significantly helped not only by the remodel but the new facility. ... You put a lot of people in a small space and ask them to have community - it's hard to do."

Cohen said it's important to provide rigorous learning opportunities for students regardless of what careers they plan to have. He's been an advocate for vocational courses, and would like to see a more coherent voc-ed program that begins in the seventh grade.

"It is important to have rigor and discipline in all areas of study and not make one area a dumping ground," he said. "Vocational ed shouldn't be a dumping ground for students who don't perform well in straight academic classes."

At the same time, Cohen said the reduction in the number of advanced courses should be reversed. Students haven't been encouraged to take such classes and haven't been counseled about their benefits, he said.

Schools must set high expectations for students, Cohen said. The way to help struggling students is to increase everyone's performance, he said.

"The expectations of the system set the performance level of the young people, and we need to make our expectations high," he said.

The school district has five formal strategies, which deal with student achievement, Native and other minority student success, healthy behaviors, ensuring a good staff, and communicating with families. The Empire asked candidates to comment on them.

"You cannot change the educational system except one teacher at a time because teachers have so much autonomy," Cohen said.

The school district must recruit good teachers, train them well on the job and have a districtwide culture that promotes excellence, Cohen said.

As for Native success, Cohen said race isn't the predominant issue. The issues are poverty, lack of language skill and household instability, he said. The school district has put a lot of effort into programs that help students struggling with English or who use English as a second language, even during times of budget cuts, he said.

The Tlingit-oriented classrooms for young students at Harborview Elementary appear to be working, Cohen added. The classes promote pride, which translates into better academic performance, he said.

The school district faces further budget cuts next school year, administrators have said. The budget, about 90 percent salaries and benefits, doesn't have much flexibility or much waste, Cohen said.

"You try to put your money where it will have the most educational impact," Cohen said. "That's a simple way of stating a very complex problem. You try to get value for dollars."

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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