My Turn: Support student activities

Posted: Friday, October 26, 2007

With Thunder Mountain High School on its way, many in Juneau have turned their attention to program details for Juneau's three high schools in 2008-2009.

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If you've checked the Juneau School District's Web site and attended public meetings, you've learned from administrators and members of the Juneau School Board that the goal is two reformed comprehensive high schools of equal size, Juneau-Douglas High School and Thunder Mountain , incorporating small learning communities in the form of theme-based academies, and a smaller alternative high school, Yaakoosge Daakahidi, operating in a renovated Marie Drake building. All this raises questions: Will the new high school be ready in August 2008? What classes will be available at each school? Which school should my kids attend and for which subjects, and how will they get to class each day if their course selection is spread between sites? Where will all the money come from? And what about activities?

Why activities? Kids want them, and they keep kids engaged in school when other means fail. Basics like enough advanced placement and vocational classes must be offered, but cut activities and you remove many kids' motivation to choose high school over other pursuits.

A quick look at the JDHS Web site shows more than 30 student activities including arts, civic groups and athletics. Most of the athletic choices, accounting for most of the total activities budget, are funded by community organizations other than the school district. Using the district's term, they are "outsourced" to nonprofits that fund those sanctioned school activities through membership fees, door-to-door fundraising, business and corporate sponsorships, pull-tab and other gaming revenue - whatever it takes.

As a person who has paid some of those fees, gone door-to-door, hit up some of those businesses and corporations for donations, and organized some small charitable gaming to support youth activities, I am confident in saying Juneau is saturated with individual fundraising efforts, and we still are not providing those outsourced activities to all the kids who have an interest and would benefit from them. Rather, we are providing those activities - sanctioned school activities, remember - primarily to kids whose parents can afford to pay out-of-pocket.

Does your daughter or son have an interest in an official high school activity that requires coaching or instruction, facilities, organization, and travel? Count that student lucky if you can afford to pay thousands of dollars during her or his high school career. You can defray those costs in part through fundraising, but be certain you will open your checkbook early and often. Pity the students whose families cannot do the same. Many of those students will convince themselves they never really wanted to participate anyway.

On Oct. 16, a handful of coaches and supporters of activities offered public comment at the regular school board meeting about a recent development at JDHS. The current 2007-2008 JDHS activities budget has been downsized. This is not a result of funds divided due to a new school coming on line next year. Rather it comes from depletion of a fundraising account that has subsidized district-funded JDHS activities in past years.

Funded travel for student activities this school year is now reduced by about 40 percent for affected groups, including musicians, athletes, and presumably others. This spring's track team, for example, which normally travels with 22 or more athletes who already raise funds and pay out-of-pocket towards each trip, is now budgeted to travel with 13 girls and boys combined (there are 17 events each for girls and boys). We are not yet implementing the expanded activities program envisioned for two large high schools and an alternative high school, and we are already failing to maintain existing opportunities for our students.

Students whose parents can continue to spend their way out of this dilemma will still get to participate in high school activities. Want to help more of Juneau's kids and encourage them to stick around or return to run this town when you and I are in our dotage? Support full funding for academic and vocational programs at all Juneau's high schools, and support full municipal funding for school activities.

• Chris Francis is a Juneau resident and father of two Juneau students.

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