School district wants more personalized high school

Supporters say smaller units allow students, teachers to know each other

Posted: Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Juneau School District has begun to ask the public how to break up Juneau-Douglas High School into smaller learning communities.

About 30 people - teachers, parents, a few students and other community members - met Saturday at the Tlingit-Haida vocational building for the first public discussion. Other meetings will be publicized later.

The district holds a $49,273 planning grant. Officials hope to have a plan in a few months and then seek grants to implement the ideas. JDHS now has about 1,625 students.

Small schools and small units within larger schools allow students and teachers to know each other better, supporters say. The small size allows teachers to guide students and monitor their progress better.

In small learning communities, the teachers' stance toward students is "I'm on your side and on your case," said Carol Miller Lieber of Chicago, a senior consultant for Educators for Social Responsibility who led Saturday's meeting.

Schools' small size also makes it easier for them to try new ideas such as different kinds of scheduling or instruction and programs focused on career paths, Lieber said. All students can develop personal education plans in those schools, she said.

If students are more attached to the school and to learning, there will be fewer dropouts and higher academic achievement, supporters say.

When Lieber asked participants to think about their memories of high school, they recalled activities such as playing a sport or being in a school play. For student Erik Mason it was belonging to a Christian fellowship group and the stunt team.

"What keeps coming up is a sense of identity," said George Gress, an English teacher at JDHS. " 'This is who I am.' It comes from sports. It comes from lots of things."

The good memories of high school often are linked to leadership, belonging to a group, and experiencing something intensely or over a long time, Lieber said.

"Imagine schools, and schools linked to community partnerships, that create opportunities for every kid to have those experiences." she said.

Three common models for small units in high schools are to separate the freshmen and put upperclassmen in houses or career pathways; put all students in houses or career pathways; or group students in two-year loops of freshmen-sophomores and junior-seniors, Lieber said.

Ideally, small learning communities have no more than 400 students, she said.

The amount of time students spend in a small learning community may vary, as well, from one to four years of school, and for all of the school day or part of it.

"Let's take a look at what will work for our community. There is no agenda on our part to see how we're going to do this," said Frank Coenraad, a JDHS counselor, in an interview.

Coenraad said the focus of small learning communities is on rigor, relevance and relationships.

But the danger is that they can become mutually exclusive, he said.

"Then, instead of forming a community, you're actually breaking it apart," Coenraad said.

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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