My Turn: High school curriculum overhaul: Asking for disaster

Posted: Friday, November 02, 2007

The Empire's recent headline about Alaska schools ranked as "drop-out factories" could have read "Juneau barely escapes drop-out factory label."

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According to the state's Web site, the graduation rate from Juneau-Douglas High School is only 63 percent - that is, 37 percent of entering freshmen do not graduate in four years, right on the edge of the "drop-out factory" label. The hard-core drop-out rate is somewhere around 4 percent per year from seventh grade onward - cumulatively 24 percent by graduation. The district's reading and writing scores are going down, not up; and our test scores were not particularly high to begin with.

The other end of the spectrum is nearly as bad. Another 40 percent of JDHS students graduate and go to college. This sounds good, but these students desperately need solid courses and a good education if they are to succeed in getting into their college of choice and to do well once they get there. JDHS simply does not offer enough advanced and advanced placement courses to fulfill the educational needs of this 40 percent of the student population. When JDHS students arrive at college, they are often far behind their peers.

To its tremendous credit, the Juneau School District administration has been working hard to change this situation, in particular with the new Thunder Mountain High School coming on line. But the district won't be just opening the doors to a second high school next fall. The district is planning sweeping changes to the entire high school academic structure.

What's being planned? Major changes. They aren't what most people expected with a "second high school ." For example, there will be no high school boundaries. Students can pick whichever high school they want to attend, whether downtown or in the Mendenhall Valley. There will be "vocational academies" within the schools. Students will be divided up into unknown numbers of "academies "with courses planned around vocational themes such as the construction, automotive and health care trades.

The ninth-grade students in both schools will be divided up into groups of "small learning communities" to receive core courses, something similar to the Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School houses, perhaps linked with the academies. If that is not confusing enough, the present JDHS faculty will be split up between the two high schools based on where each individual teacher wants to go. And the JDHS academic courses will be divvied up, not only between the two schools but between the "academies." Which courses will be offered where, when, by whom and how often is completely up in the air.

As the parent of an eighth grader this concerns me greatly. I credit the district for trying, but to be honest this plan looks like complete chaos. Building and opening a new high school is a challenge in and of itself. Imposing an entirely new, untried and inchoate academic plan on both high schools at once, even with the best of intentions, is simply asking for disaster. The district has bitten off more than it can chew.

I encourage the district to slow down and implement its plan one step at a time. Certainly, the "vocational academies" are worth a try. But try them at one school first, and see if they really work. Let's keep an alternative while the district tries out the "academies." The district should maintain one comprehensive high school - and it should increase the number and quality of advanced and AP courses at that school to serve as a magnet for students who are more traditionally inclined. Going carefully and step by step will greatly increase the chances for success.

• Dick Monkman is a parent representative on the Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School Site Council and parent chairman of the Extended Learning Parent Advisory Committee.

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