Let's travel academic road carefully

Posted: Sunday, November 04, 2007

Say you are heading out on an unknown, somewhat icy road to get somewhere important. It is trite to say that driving slowly and carefully is more likely to get you there more quickly (and safely) than going faster will. It is trite because it is true.

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Juneau School District personnel are in the midst working very hard and thoughtfully on a transition to a very important destination - moving from one high school to two, and doing so in a way that will engage the students and reduce our very high dropout rate.

One aspect of the transition is the proposal to have theme-based academies in Juneau's high schools, in which 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders would concentrate on particular areas. (As an example, one possibility mentioned has been an academy that would focus on health care.) This plan, the district hopes and believes, will catch the interest of the students in a new way, by allowing them to delve into something about which they are passionate.

At the same time, there are a number of parents who are concerned that academies will require young people to select a focus too early, when they should be able instead to explore a number of areas.

There are also worries about this coming transition stemming from some of the unexpected ill effects that happened when the high school implemented two small learning communities for about half this year's ninth-graders. Those glitches included 1) a literature class outside of the small communities with 36 students, while that same class in one of the small communities has only 17 students, and 2) no separate advanced science classes offered within the small communities.

This transition to two high schools is such an important journey for Juneau that many parents are hoping the district will go slowly, make the changes gradually, fix the inevitable glitches as they arise, and consolidate gains before going the next mile. One way to do that would be to start the academy system at one high school, work out the kinks and build community confidence in this new approach before implementing it at the other school.

This is a new road we are traveling and a critically important one to current and future Juneau students. Going carefully and incrementally - rather than rushing into wholesale change - will likely get us where we want to go faster, and with less travail.

Larri Irene Spengler


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