PUBLISHED: 4:25 PM on Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Classroom Experiment
New school, new coursework and new learning philosophies. The Juneau School District shakes things up in the name of academic achievement.
The Juneau community is on the verge of a redefining change as the new high school prepares to open its doors to students.

Some school officials have fought for a new high school for years as classrooms in Juneau-Douglas High School filled tighter every year, but in the wake of Thunder Mountain High School's grand opening some members of the community are still uneasy.

Concerns range from splitting the high school population to sports to funding two schools. Perhaps the largest question mark is the educational philosophies being put in place.

All of these are legitimate concerns, and as Patti Bippus, principal for Thunder Mountain High School, has said: "We don't want to experiment on our youth."

And while school officials want to avoid a classroom "experiment," the next school year very well could shed light on if the school board's new approach to education gets a passing grade.

Small Learning Communities

This fall, both TMHS and JDHS will implement small learning communities and academies as academic programs. JDHS, however, will maintain a traditional subject-based curriculum.

All freshmen will be placed in small learning communities, or groups, where they will take all core classes with the same group of 25-30 students.

Bippus said these groups have been implemented at JDHS last year and said claims it led to improved learning, study skills and time management among students.

The academies, in turn, will offer themed learning for students. The hope of the academies, said Bippus, is to better connect learning topics with student interest.

"The academies have been based on student surveys," Bippus said. "The intent is to take the standard curriculum and connect it to student interests."

Students will have the choice between three academies and the standard curriculum. JDHS will offer the traditional course load as well as the Architecture Construction Engineering (ACE) academy. TMHS will offer two academies, Global Expressions and Exploration & Discovery. ACE will focus toward more technical fields, Global Expressions toward a more liberal arts focus, and Exploration and Discovery will have a sciences and technologies approach.

The overhaul from traditional course curriculum throughout the school district could be construed as an experiment. Both Bippus and Superintendent Peggy Cowan feel that learning about the educational philosophies will ease parents' fears about the changes taking place.

"The intent is to make learning connected and relevant and to make connections to the community," Cowan said. "People can feel more comfortable about the changes through knowledge."

The school district has informational pamphlets on display at it's office 811 West 12th Street office explaining the new concepts to parents and students. And if the pamphlets aren't enough, parents can always go directly to a school administrator, said School Board member Destiny Sargeant.

"Parents obviously have concerns, and rightfully so," she said. "However, I am also the parent of two children and I don't want status quo for them, I want cutting edge education for all our kids."

Electing to learn

Another prevalent concern is limitation of elective courses and extra-curricular activities at TMS. The new high school will offer elective courses only during fifth and sixth period. But school officials are saying TMHS students will still be able to enroll for art, music, business and advanced courses. Bippus said each academy will incorporate electives and elective teachers will spend at least one quarter working with the teachers in each of the academies.

Cowan said curriculum standards remain the same and the school district will still offer all of the advanced placement, extended learning and special needs options to students.

The school district also has chosen to maintain a traditional general studies program at JDHS along with offering one academy, giving students an alternative educational model. Cowan said more options can help to serve more students.

Students will be allowed to shuttle between the two schools to participate in activities not offered at their high school. The shuttle system will allow participation in sports, among other extracurricular activities.

Sports will be split between the two schools until Thunder Mountain joins the Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA) in 2009

Administrators are hopeful splitting Juneau-Douglas' notoriously-crammed classrooms between two schools will allow for more one-on-time time with educators. Class sizes will essentially remain the same but 12 new positions have been added for teachers and support staff. Currently, approximately 1151 students have enrolled at JDHS while TMHS will start out with a student body of 417. Yakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School boasts 143 students.

"Smaller schools have better academic achievement," Bippus said.

The hope is that the smaller enrollment and lack of bulging hallways will better serve students and help the dropout rate. According to Cowan, the graduating class of 2007 had a drop out rate of nearly 35 percent from their incoming freshman class.

While Cowan noted that the dropout rate doesn't include students who finish later or re-enrolled later. Regardless, with about one third of its incoming freshman quitting early, the school district is ready to try something new.

The theory is: if students can choose academic programs, are offered new opportunities and can learn in smaller and more consistent environments, more students will take the walk during graduation and earn a high school diploma in years to come.

"The next generation program is a new approach ... in the hopes that more students will be successful," Cowan said.