My turn: Don't let focus on dropouts hurt high achievers

Posted: Monday, November 12, 2007

While a friend from our former school anguishes over her 17-year-old son's college options in chemistry at either MIT, the University of Chicago or Stanford, we are clinging to the hope that our children will at least be given the opportunity to take enough advanced placement courses to adequately prepare for college at all.

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The current overriding focus on decreasing the high school dropout rate for academically unmotivated students by instituting "career academies" at Juneau-Douglas and Thunder Mountain high schools should not be achieved by sacrificing the opportunities of those who are striving for academic excellence. The future of Juneau's economy, like that of the American economy, relies on far more than skill sets or on-the-job training. Technological innovation and entrepreneurial expansion can only rise from a solid academic foundation.

Juneau School District Superintendent Peggy Cowan and Assistant Superintendent Charla Wright's blind reliance on "career academies" to fix our achievement gaps will, we fear, only shift these gaps to a new group of students.

This year, under a transition plan into small learning communities at Juneau-Douglas High School, students who managed to find their way (or whose parents forced them) into the few advanced level courses currently offered for freshman were disappointed, and in some cases, they either physically or mentally "dropped out" of the program in the first few months. Students found that, with few exceptions, the courses were mislabeled, the curriculum offered was no different than the curriculum completed by that student in middle school, or the teacher was either unable to properly focus on the course because of a heavy workload or didn't have the proper training to teach the course.

There is, as yet, no coherent description of how students will be prepared for or how they will advance toward college or toward higher learning in any field under the new plan. For unexplained reasons, the district proposes to leave intact tracking programs for nonachievers (at Yaakoosge Daakahidi, the Early Scholars and the Choice Program) and dismantle the few aspects of the programs that are working for high achievers, such as dividing up the small number of AP courses for which JDHS recently received an award. The transfer of two of our five or six AP-trained teachers in the first year to Thunder Mountain also makes little sense when the juniors and seniors will largely be attending JDHS and will be in need of those classes.

Moving students or teachers each day between JDHS, Thunder Mountain or even the University of Alaska Southeast with little or no connection among students and teachers is a poor substitute for advancement, is fiscally irresponsible, and clearly negates any of the claimed benefits to establishing "small learning communities" and academies.

The Juneau School District should be building on its successes and analyzing its failures for very specific needs such as standardizing teacher and curriculum development and adding to, not dividing up, advanced levels of students and teachers.

We need a comprehensive education program, including advanced placement courses in all subjects taught, at one of the three high schools. We all share in the pride when a student succeeds; we should reward those students with advancement at our high schools and see how far they can go - just as our athletic programs do and just as colleges and the job market will do in the future.

• Jean M. Mischel and Paul M. Skan are residents of Juneau.

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