In most cities big enough to have two or more high schools, you go to the one that’s closest — and you don’t get a say in it. But in Juneau, incoming freshmen get to choose between the town’s two main high schools: Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé and Thunder Mountain High School. But with a shrinking population, some people question whether there should be two high schools at all.
JDHS has an auto shop and the only high school hockey team in town.
Russian is only offered at Thunder Mountain. And it has a rifle team.
These are all reasons a student might pick one school over the other, said JDHS Principal Paula Casperson. It’s a big choice, and she thinks students take that seriously.
“Students are rising to some of the challenge of really taking some ownership of their academic paths, of their areas of interest, of the high school student they want to be,” said Casperson.
Casperson has worked at the high school for 22 years — since well before the newer school, Thunder Mountain, opened in 2008. Today, JDHS is a modest-sized high school with just under 600 students, but Casperson remembers the days when they had almost three times that many. Some classes were held in a neighboring building, but even so, hallways were crowded, and there were concerns about students falling through the cracks.
Casperson said being a smaller school has allowed JDHS to be more personal.
“I think there is a real emphasis on relationship and connectedness,” she said. “And when you’re one student of 600, it’s far harder to be lost in the school day.”
But a high school of 600 is never what the Juneau School District had in mind.
Mary Becker was president of the Juneau School Board in the early 2000s, when plans got underway for a second comprehensive high school. She says back in the early 2000s, when plans got underway for a second high school, the district believed Juneau’s population was growing. They’d hired a consultant who predicted that by 2005, Juneau would be home to 2,127 high school students — far more than could fit in the existing school.
With that expectation, the city voted to build a second high school in the Mendenhall Valley. That’s Thunder Mountain. That happened. But the population growth never did.
“We were peaked out, and then ever since, the numbers have gone down. Every single year,” said Kurt Dzinich Jr.
Dzinich has taught history at JDHS since before the second high school was built. He’s been a vocal critic of the split and hopes to see the district re-merge JDHS and Thunder Mountain into a single high school.
Mostly, he’s concerned that dividing the schools’ resources has limited opportunities for students. He said the small staffs at each school have to focus on teaching courses that are required for graduation. Electives have disappeared.
“We have a huge offering in our course catalog. The course catalog looks quite impressive on paper, but that’s not something that we can offer up on a consistent basis,” he said.
So in a given school year, a lot of those courses aren’t taught, said Dzinich. Or they’re offered so infrequently that students can’t fit them into their schedules.
But not everyone agrees that splitting the high schools is to blame for lost classes. Or at least, some say it’s not the main culprit.
Carol May teaches math. She was one of the original teachers to move from JDHS to Thunder Mountain back in 2008. She said if the schools were to re-combine, they could probably offer a few more things.
But, she said, “The main reason that we have lost electives is because of the state budget cuts. We have been cutting and cutting and cutting, and there’s really nothing left to cut, except for electives.”
May has been pretty happy having two smaller high schools. She knows more of the students in the hallways, and she said she sees more of them getting involved in activities.
Currently, the school district counts 702 students at Thunder Mountain and 590 at JDHS. District Chief of Staff Kristin Bartlett said together that’s more than could fit into either high school. In addition, 95 students are enrolled at Yaakoosge Daakahidi, the alternative high school. Right now, the district is committed to the system in place of two comprehensive high schools and a smaller alternative high school.
There is no magic number, no enrollment threshold, that would trigger immediate changes.
So for now, it’s still up to Juneau’s eighth-graders to decide: Am I a Falcon, or a Crimson Bear?
Eighth-graders in Juneau who submitted their high school choice to the district by Feb. 8 are guaranteed their chosen school — between JDHS and Thunder Mountain. Students interested in attending the alternative high school must apply directly.
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