Question of Confidence

Survey raises concerns about parents' satisfaction with school planning

Posted: Sunday, December 09, 2007

A new survey of parents with children in the Juneau School District shows that confidence in the school district administration is lower than they'd like.

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Seventeen percent of parents polled reported feeling "very confident" in the district as a whole; 47 percent said they were "somewhat confident." Thirty percent of parents said they were either "somewhat unconfident" or "very unconfident," according to the survey by the Anchorage-based polling firm, Hellenthal and Associates.

That has some Juneau School Board members worried. They think it may be because of the Next Generation planning, which will guide academic curriculum and extracurricular activities at Juneau-Douglas High School downtown and Thunder Mountain High School, slated to open in fall 2008 in the Mendenhall Valley.

Schools survey:

• 50 percent of those polled say yesto academies in the high schools.

• 43 percent don't know what an academy is.

• 77 percent say yes to dual sports programs in the two schools.

• 65 percent say yes to a closed campus for ninth-graders.

• 29 percent of students that left before graduation did so to seek education elsewhere.

• 89 percent are satisfied with teachers.

• 66 percent support a .05 percent sales tax to pay for sports and activities.

• 43 percent say the top funding priority should be smaller class size.

Web links

Complete survey results are available on the Internet at

Lead pollster Mark Hellenthal, who worked on the survey, said the confidence level was lower than usually found in school districts. Addressing School Board members in a long-distance call last week, he, too, said it could be because of controversy surrounding Next Generation planning.

School Board member Mark Choate said he thinks he knows why parents feel the way they do. With the final draft of the Next Generation education plan due Monday, the school district has given little detailed information to the parents whose children will be educated in the new system.

"There hasn't been much information to communicate and we've been asking people to comment without giving them much to go on," Choate said. "It's Dec. 7 and we're just finding out what the academies at Thunder Mountain are. We have no financial plan and no budget."

School Superintendent Peggy Cowan has a different take on the survey numbers and said local confidence levels in the school district are in line with national figures. Historically, national public confidence in school districts averages near 61 percent, she said.

"We'd obviously like to be above average," she said.

For the survey, pollsters called 602 parents from a list of 5,372 phone numbers provided by the school district to ask questions to help the district better grasp the thoughts of participants on the proposed themed academies, sports and activities, and general school district topics. The poll cost $13,500.

Forty-nine percent of those polled had children in high school.

School Board member Margo Waring was among those concerned about a lack of confidence in the school district.

"The School Board and [school district] administration need to pay attention," she said. "We need to go slow, evaluate constantly and be able to reassure the community we are doing the right thing."

Parents' lack of confidence might have nothing to do with Next Generation planning and could relate to other issues in the school district, School Board member Destiny Sargeant said.

"We have to listen to the 30 percent," she said.

Cowan said the poll was ordered following public input and written testimony from a series of forums held throughout town. The poll's primary theme was academies and sports and activities.

Cowan said poll information she found particularly interesting were parents' thoughts on a school-choice lottery, academies, dual sports programs and closing campus for younger students.

If a lottery is required because too many students choose one school or one academy over another, 29 percent of parents polled said school proximity should be the primary factor in a lottery, 18 percent said at-risk students should have priority and 16 percent said the lottery should be random.

Parents favored keeping freshmen on campus for lunch at a rate of 65 percent, and 58 percent favored keeping sophomores on campus.

Of the parents contacted and given a brief two-sentence academy definition, 50 percent said they would send their child to an academy, 34 percent said no to academies and 14 percent said they don't know.

Though the school district has not given a specific definition of "academy," 56 percent said they knew what an academy was. Sixty-six percent of parents said they were aware of the school district's plan to reorganize high school education.

It looks like three academies will emerge from the secondary planning committee proposal Monday, one at JDHS and two at TMHS, Choate said. More than half of Juneau's high school students will not be in academies and Choate said the survey results don't get at the underlying question of how to improve education overall for the majority of students.

"What are we going to do for them?" he said.

One parent contacted by the survey firm said the pollster was "unprofessional" and inserted his own opinions into the discussion.

"It appears to have been put together to obtain a certain result," Carolyn Minor said.

Hellenthal & Associates referred questions to Hellenthal and said he was unavailable until January.

Every member of the School Board was called for comment on the survey for this story. Three were reached, one board member returned the call but was not available for comment, and three did not return calls by deadline.

Members of the Next Generation Secondary Planning Committee were on deadline to produce their final recommendation Friday and were unavailable for comment. They delayed the release of their final recommendations until Monday.

According to the survey, a primary school district concern in sports and activities centered around whether or not to offer equal programs at both high schools. Parents were asked if Thunder Mountain High School and Juneau-Douglas High School should offer similar sports and 77 percent said yes.

The survey found 89 percent of parents are satisfied with their children's teachers.

Waring said it was very gratifying and reassuring to see a high level of confidence parents have in classroom teachers.

"It's troubling they don't feel the same level of confidence in the district as a whole," she said.

School Board member Sargeant called the survey results a "breath of fresh air" and said she would primarily use the information on academies, closed campuses and sports and activities during her decision-making process over the next few weeks.

The School Board is expected to begin deliberating on the final Next Generation education plan during its Dec. 18 meeting.

The survey shows that Next Generation planning is on track and the school district can move ahead and adjust as needed, Sargeant said.

"Juneau will be ahead of many places in the U.S. We're on the brink of something fantastic," she said. "Juneau, hang in there."

• Contact Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or

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