January 10, 2020

Assessment in our Schools

Soon the students in AGSD will be taking the second administration of the “MAP”…(Measure of Academic Progress), which is a “formative assessment” that is a vital tool for our teachers, who use this information to diagnose specific student learning issues in math and language arts, and to design and then tailor their instruction to have the maximum impact on learning. So in the same way that a doctor uses blood tests, or an MRI, to address a medical condition, teachers in today’s modern classrooms use a wide range of assessments that help them identify trouble spots and areas of strengths to ensure that they are using the right teaching strategy for a given student.

Standard, traditional “summative” assessments – are tests that we are all familiar with – and they can be helpful in allowing teachers to communicate with students, families, administrators, and other educational stakeholders, about how a student is progressing in meeting course objectives. The PEAKS (Performance Evaluation for Alaska’s Schools) is an assessment that the state requires Alaska students in grades 3 – 9 to take in Math and ELA (or English & Language Arts), is another example of a summative assessment intended to let parents and community members know how well their kids are doing. Other tests, like the “NAEP” (the National Assessment of Educational Progress) are used tell state residents either how well or poorly their schools are doing in comparison to other states. The NAEP tests a sampling of students…for example 4th grade students in Eagle and 8th grade students in Dot Lake school, and then the same for West or Lathrop High School. These scores are then averaged across the state, and the states are ranked. Unlike a formative assessment, the NAEP does not given much useful information that will help to guide instruction. It does not show student or school growth, because we don’t know how well any individual student is doing. In some ways it is like a game, with states improving their NAEP standing by retaining students who are lower performers in the 3rd grade, so that the 4th grade is tested, the higher performing students drive up the scores, but when then test these same students in the 8th grade, there is little to no improvement. Formative assessment is much more useful.

AGSD has also been using a formative reading assessment from an intervention program called Lexia, that is both an assessment and a diagnostic program. We have 155 students in grades 1 - 5 across the district are using Lexia. Of those students, 108 are in classrooms using it regularly, of them, 72% have advanced one or more grade levels since fall. This is huge deal, and shows how well the students who are using this instructional program improve when it is used properly. Teachers and aides work with students to target the specific reading issues that showed up in their assessments, like practicing “fluency” or “short-consonants” sounds. This fall two of our schools made incredible gains…Tanacross and Northway. Hats off to the teachers at those schools who are showing serious improvements in reading with their students. It is so encouraging to see their progress. It is not only important for teachers to know what their students assessment results are like, but students also need to know how well they are doing. Parents can help with this by just asking their kids what their assessments scores are like in reading and math. They should know! If you are interested in learning about your kids assessment scores o the PEAKS, on MAP, or any other scores, please attend parent teacher conferences, talk to your teacher, or call your school. They will be happy to share assessment information about your student with you.

Friday, November 15,2019

Literacy is the cornerstone for meaningful participation in a democratic society, and being able to read proficiently is a fundamental right for all Alaska’s students. National and state assessments provide clear and compelling evidence that Alaska’s children on average do not read on par with their peers nationally. Some in the state are calling it a crisis. In Alaska Gateway, over the past three years, the district has been in a full court press to ensure that all of our students are reading proficiently by the end of the 3rd grade, and while we are showing an average upward trend by many different measures, we still have a ways to go. Most schools have what is called a “standard bell curve” like a single camel hump, related to student performance. This means that typically, most students are near the middle. AGSD though, is different. What we have is like a double camel hump…with a group of kids that perform very high, and another group that performs low…with not many students in the middle.

If you go the website of the Department of Education and Early Development at https://education.alaska.gov/, you will find there is a new way to see the results of state assessment scores from all across the state. It is a program called “Compass”, and it is a way for parents to compare one school to another school in the district, or across the state, or the same school from one year to the next…from school year 2016-17 to 2017-18, for example, (which are the only years they have). They don’t have 2019 data loaded yet. But still, a lot of information is there. It lists graduation and poverty rates. And it will show what the average PEAK scores are in math or language arts at each school in the state.

Students in the upper Tanana often start kindergarten far behind their national peers in readiness for age level academic targets. The average 4-5 year old child has a 5000 word vocabulary. Many of our students have less than a 2000 word vocabulary when they start kindergarten, and are already two years behind. The good news is that research says that children who do attend quality preschool programs have a good chance to catch up! It is so important to have all students by the time they start the 4th grade, to be reading at level, because that is when the transition from “learning to read”, to “reading to learn”, starts to happen. In the district we have been making significant progress using the best reading diagnostic tools and most recent reading science by a team of highly trained and committed teachers. We have even been trying for the past several years to get a Reading Intervention Specialist to move to Tok! And we are training our teachers to become specialists in reading instruction. Just today, as I write this, a districtwide training in the use of a reading diagnostic program called Lexia, is finishing up. A reading specialist from the states came up and spent all day training our teachers to effectively use this very powerful reading diagnostic and instruction tool. Just as a doctor needs the most advanced diagnostic tools, we are making sure that our teacher also have the most advanced tools, and that they know how to use them.

Parents have an important role to play in helping their children to read, too. Parents should read to their kids every day, and can listen to their kids read too. Just talking to a child is a powerful teaching strategy, and helps their vocabulary grow. They can have reading nights at home, and most importantly…let the kids see their parents reading. It seems like a small thing, but most children want to be just like their parents. What parents think is important, the child will think is important. So if reading is important to parents, it will also be important to kids. It is simple and hard, at the same time, but the result will be important for the rest of their lives.

Friday, October 11, 2019

This year, after a lot of focused work, AGSD had one of our lowest teacher turn-overs ever. Even so, this was also the first year that Alaska Gateway School District started a school year with unfilled teaching positions. Finding quality teachers who want to live and work in Alaska, and keeping them here for our kids, can be challenging. With that in mind, we thought this month it would be worthwhile to include this abridged article about the national teacher shortage that is impacting districts all across Alaska.

The following article was published March 26, 2019, in Education Week’s Teacher Beat Blog By Madeline Will: 

Are Teacher Shortages Worse Than We Thought?(Abridged)

The teacher shortage is “worse than we thought,” researchers conclude in a new analysis of federal data. The study, published by the union-backed think tank Economic Policy Institute, argues that when indicators of teacher quality are considered—like experience, certification, and training—the teacher shortage is even more acute than previously estimated. This hits high-poverty schools the hardest, the study’s authors say.

“We don’t have a national teacher labor market, we have 50 different labor markets,” said Daniel Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington. And in most states, the teaching force has actually grown faster than student enrollment. Still, Elaine Weiss, a co-author of the EPI report and the former national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education campaign, noted that schools across the country have reported difficulties hiring teachers. An Education Week analysis of federal data found that all 50 states reported experiencing statewide shortages in at least one teaching area for either the 2016-17 or 2017-18 school year. “If schools are reporting that they need teachers, and that they are struggling to find teachers to fill those spots, ... I find it very hard to understand how there can’t be a teacher shortage,” Weiss said.

The shortage of teachers is most pronounced in high poverty schools, the EPI report finds. For example, 80 percent of teachers in low-poverty schools have more than five years of experience, compared to 75 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools. And about 73 percent of teachers who work in low-poverty schools have an educational background in the subject they teach, compared to 66 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools. It’s worth noting that high-poverty schools struggle with hiring and retaining teachers in general—not just teachers who meet EPI’s criteria of highly qualified. But the study’s authors write that highly qualified teachers are in high demand, and are more likely to be recruited by affluent school districts that might be able to offer better working conditions. Low-income children are consistently more likely to be taught by teachers who are not fully certified or who have less experience, the report says. Indeed, a federal 2016 report found that uncertified teachers were more prevalent among high-poverty schools and schools with high percentages of students of color and English-language learners. The EPI authors are planning to release five more papers analyzing the conditions that contribute to the shortage of who they deem highly qualified teachers, particularly in high-poverty schools. The papers will look at challenges related to teacher recruitment, pay, working conditions, and professional development, as well as give recommendations to policymakers.

Friday, August 16, 2019

This week we begin school, and are looking back at how we did last year, and looking forward with anticipation to establishing and meeting new goals for the upcoming year. When an organization sets goals, and everyone works together toward achieving those goals, it is important for us to keep track of how we are doing…did we meet our goals? If we did meet them, what do we need to maintain that achievement…and if we didn’t meet them, what do we need to change to do better? All of our goals derive from the schools district’s strategic plan, which is our guiding document. In the Alaska Gateway School District Strategic Plan, we have 6 over-arching “Focus Areas” along with the following belief statements that guides our district.

AGSD Strategic Plan Focus Areas

Student Engagement: AGSD believes in engaging all students with meaningful opportunities to discover their interests and pursue their passions

Staff Recruitment/Retention: AGSD believes that recruiting, cultivating, and retaining exemplary staff will foster a deep commitment to the growth of our students

Cultural Knowledge: ASGD believes that authentic cultural knowledge and appreciation is the foundation for meaningful student engagement.

Teaching and Learning: AGSD believes that providing rigorous academic pathways will prepare students for life challenges, post-secondary options, and career opportunities.

School Culture: AGSD believes that positive relationships and high expectations for students, staff, and community members, creates a healthy environment where students are safe, eager to learn, willing to take risks, and become responsible citizens.

Community Partnerships: AGSD believes that cultivating a local partnerships provides opportunities for students and enriches our communities.

FY19 District focus Goals: Last year we established three focus goals…improve staff retention, increase reading, and decrease dropouts. – so how did we do?

  • Intentional Retention of 90% of certified staff: While we improved our rate of retention for the third year in a row, we did not quite reach our goal of 90% retention. In 2016 the district was able to retain 52.9%, which is pretty low. In 2018 we had a 79.5% retention rate, and in FY19, last year, we were at 86.4% staff retention, resulting in the smallest group of new teaching staff to the district that I can remember…just 6 teachers. So, we still have more work to do, we are making good progress.
  • All 3rd Grade students reading at grade level: Again, while we improved, we did not meet this goal. To measure how we are doing in elementary reading, we use three different learning assessment tools, or tests, that help us know where students are at, and what kind of instruction they need to succeed. In the fall of 2018, using the Lexia Assessment tool, we had 17% of our K-5 students districtwide at grade level in reading, and at the end of the year, we 68% of these same students now at grade level, districtwide. This is a huge improvement! Using our MAP scores, which we do three times a year, we also showed improvement, although not as great. On the state assessments, scores across the state declined a little, and so did AGSD’s. We did learn though that this is because they changed the test, adding in new questions that hadn’t been asked before. Overall, we have a ways to go, but we are clearly on the right track.
  • Decrease Dropout Rate: Not only did we continue the improvement trend that we have been on, but we more than met this goal. The dropout rate is the number of students who start high school in the fall, and then quit sometime during the year. The same student can dropout each year that they are in high school. In 2013 the districtwide dropout was just under 12%, which means that 20 to 30 students quit school that year. That is obviously is not acceptable. Three years ago, AGSD designed our Pathways program, and last year our dropout rate decreased to .05%, which is a big improvement.
  • In order to move forward, we need to know where we have been, and how we are doing. I’m pleased to report the improvements that we are making, that show Alaska Gateway Schools has quality teachers and that our schools are great places for kids to learn, with lots of unique opportunities for exploring their futures.

    Friday, May 17, 2019

    As we come to the end of the school year, it is a good time to take stock of things that went on in the district since last August, and reflect on how we did in meeting the goals that we focused on. It is true that we had a lot of improvement in learning this year, but we are not forgetting that there is still a lot more that needs doing in order to meet the School Board’s priorities of improving student engagement in their own learning, and improving staff retention. The Board wants the district to focus on the development and implementation across all grade levels, a personalized plan for each student that includes personalized instruction and address individual student interests. The district did that this year by implementing Blended and Personalized Learning Initiative across the district, worked that together with a “Variable Schedule”, where students take a four week class that focuses on core academics lie Geography, English and Math. They were then able to follow their own interests during two intensive weeks of instruction, where AGSD students had some unique opportunities to follow their own passions. Some were able to learn skills that would never have been possible before this during regular school time, for example, some students learned about trapping and skinning, while others learned skin sewing and online marketing skills. Some students learned about robotics, and other learned about culinary arts. Still others learned camping and hunting and fishing skills, spending a week at fish camp on the Yukon River, where they learned camp skills, net repair and food preparation. These are skills that will help our students in their everyday lives, AND helps them to be prepared with the workplace readiness skill that will make them competitive in the job market! Teacher retention was another area where we worked hard to improve, because keeping great teachers makes learning much better! With many teachers now leaving Alaska, finding good teachers, and getting them stay here has been a real task! But, this year we had close to a 90% retention rate of teachers who were offered contracts, which is the best the district has ever had. We are looking at making next year even better, and as always, ask for the communities help in creating a great place for our kids to learn in!

    Reading improvement is a goal of the Alaska Education Challenge that our teachers did a great job at! They we are making sure that every student in the 3rd grade is reading at the right reading level no matter how far they were behind when they started school. Students who are not at level by the end of the third grade can fall behind and often never catch up. Many of our students start school and do not know their letters or have the basic vocabulary that they need to succeed. This is why every parent should read to the their child many times a week when then are preschool age. Just hearing the words can make a huge difference in a student vocabulary. So we hired a person who is a “Reading Interventions” specialist. She tested students for specific learning holes in reading, and developed a plan for each student to improve. We also started a new program at all of our schools called “Lexia”, and trained out teachers to use it properly. Teachers who did it right, saw big gains in the their students reading ability, and we think we are going to see big improvement on the state assessments. At the start of this year, 96% of our K-5 students district-wide, were below proficient in reading. Today, nearly 70% are at or above proficient! It is not good enough, but it shows what great staff we now have, and what they are able to do for our students.

    Everyone at AGSD wishes our students and their parents a great summer, and we hope that everyone is able to check out the Gateway After-school Program camp this June! The kids who attend that are going to learn a lot, and have a lot of fun!

    By Daarel Burnette II

    Education WeekApril 11, 2019

    Submitted Friday, April 12,2019

    As Alaska is working through our own Education Budget issues, here's a snapshot of some of the most animated political battles this legislative season to replace, update, and legally grapple with school funding formulas. These situations remain politically fluid, and in some of these cases-and in other states- funding bills have failed even to make it out of legislative committee or withered early in the legislative session.


    The prospects appeared high earlier this year for Idaho to push through a new funding formula. Its current formula is more than 25 years old. But early in the process, the effort stumbled after teacher groups, school administrators, legislators, and school funding advocacy groups couldn't agree on teacher pay, weights for some student groups, and whether to base school funding on attendance or enrollment. Instead, lawmakers this year are expected to pass a watered-down bill that will require the state to start collecting more-accurate enrollment data. Because the state is so rural, many students take some courses online, as well as at charter schools and at traditional public schools, making money distribution especially complicated. Before the state's legislative session ended March 28, lawmakers pledged to tackle approving a new funding formula during next year's legislative session.


    Kansas' funding formula has been under legal scrutiny for several years, and the state's supreme court last year demanded that the state increase the amount of money it provides to schools or risk having the entire funding formula deemed unconstitutional, forcing the state's schools to shut down. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly April 6 signed a bill that would provide $90 million for each of the next three years to the state's public schools. The question now is whether that amount will satisfy the state's supreme court. Lawyers for the four school districts that sued the state in the Gannon v. Kansas funding lawsuit, have said the state will fall $270 million short of what districts need to provide an adequate education. The court will hear the latest twist in this case on May 9.


    Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, as of now is faced with signing or vetoing a newly passed measure that would over the next two years contribute $850 million more in state revenue toward schools. It's seen in the state as a down payment on a new funding formula being pushed by a legislature-appointed commission. The new money is to be used for increasing teacher pay, expanding prekindergarten programs, and establishing more wraparound services in high-poverty schools. All are things recommended by the commission chaired by William Kirwan, the former chancellor of the University of Maryland system. Legislators couldn't agree on several other recommendations, including how they would be able to afford a $3.8 billion funding increase by 2030, but they have committed to attempting to replace the entire funding formula next year.


    Hundreds of parents, teachers, and advocates packed a hearing in late March at the state capitol on school funding. Three bills coursing through the legislature could alter the way the state distributes its K-12 money for the first time in more than 25 years. One bill, pushed by Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, would provide $1.1 billion more for schools over the next seven years and give the state's department of education more oversight of underperforming schools. Another, dubbed the Education PROMISE Act, would implement several spending provisions that a bipartisan state-appointed commission recommended last year, and add $1 billion over a yet-to-be determined number of years. And a third, much looser proposal, named "An Act Relative to Updating the Education Foundation Budget," pledges that the state will replace its funding formula by 2024, but would commit no new state aid for schools. Several proposals were killed at the last minute during last year's legislative session after lawmakers couldn't agree on new spending patterns. The state's legislative session ends May 8.


    In the middle of this year's session, a task force made up legislators, district superintendents, and school finance officers proposed what it called the "Fair School Funding Plan." Districts had long complained that the state's existing formula doesn't distribute money to the districts most in need of state aid and that it unfairly punishes districts that have a significant number of students who transfer to charter schools. The proposal would, according to its architects, provide more money to districts serving more-impoverished students. But it quickly ran into trouble when lawmakers calculated that wealthier districts would stand to gain more per pupil that poorer districts. The plan would require the state to increase overall state funding for schools by 10 percent over the next two years. Legislators are still debating components of the bill. The state's legislative session runs throughout the year.


    With both the legislature and governorship now under Democratic control, lawmakers are gathering steam to replace a school funding formula that is almost 50 years old. At this point, proposals haven't been formalized into a bill, those close to the process have told local media. The approaches being debated would not increase the amount of money the state contributes to public schools, but would change which districts get more money. Currently, every district gets the same amount of money, no matter what type of student it's educating. Those crafting the legislation are considering giving more money to schools that teach students who require more resources to educate, such as impoverished students, English-language learners, and those with disabilities. Reports suggest the legislation will be rolled out in the coming weeks.


    Lawmakers are barreling through the lawmaking process on House Bill 3, which would upend Texas' decades-old "Robin Hood" funding formula, which takes money from property-rich districts and distributes it to property-poor districts. The bill would increase per-pupil spending to $6,030 from $5,140 and increase school spending by $9 billion over the next two years. The bill gained more support from districts and teachers after a provision was included to tie teacher pay and a portion of districts' revenue to test scores. If passed, the state's property tax would decrease and districts would rely more on sales and oil tax revenue.

    Friday, February 15, 2019

    This past month we are all acutely aware of the tragedies and the heart ache and loss of our youth that weighs on us so heavily. As we struggle to come to grips with meeting this challenge, we are moving forward with hope, to find lasting solutions that will work. One key to solving this problem is to more intentionally develop meaningful relationships with our students. Teachers with respectful, positive relationships with their students are able to hold these same students to higher standards of conduct and performance and help support them in creating their own meaning and direction in their lives. While we may never know just how impactful our relationship with a student is in creating connection and agency until years later, we do know that these relationships matter a great deal.

    It is an unfortunate reality that the school districts in Alaska have such a very limited capacity in the area of providing formal mental health services, and this is frustrating for us because there is such a great need. But we will not let that be an excuse for failing to act. We are working toward developing as a system that also will help us to address the SEL (Social-Emotional Learning) needs of our students. Last month I wrote about what district goals in our strategic plan. These goals include not only academic goals, ensuring that our increasing numbers of graduating students are ready for training or college after they leave us, but also in ensuring that where they attend schools are safe and welcoming places to be. As a system, for example, we are learning about how trauma can impact our students, and how restorative practice can help us address that. So, while we are all working hard toward achieving the academic goals that are embedded in our strategic plan, we also are working hard on the wellbeing of the whole child through improving our daily practice and long term policies.

    One area of real promise in meeting this need is in developing closer ties with the Behavioral and Mental programs that the Tanana Chiefs Conference has in place in the Upper Tanana. We have appreciated the growing relationship that we have with TCC over the past few years, in particular, the work that we are doing with their help in our preschool programs across the district. Last year AGSD was nominated by the Tanana Chiefs Conference for the Alaska Head Start Association’s “School District Collaboration Award”, and I was very proud that AGSD was selected by the Association to receive that distinction. TCC is one of our closest and most important partners. They bring resources that the district is simply not in a position to provide to the table. And by working together and staying focused on what is best for all of our students, we are growing this relationship to create new opportunities to work together to provider more comprehensive mental health outreach. The importance of this for our students cannot be overstated.

    November 12, 2018

    School Board members are volunteers who provide local control of our schools. They ensure that that our community values and beliefs guide district policy, such as our attendance or student travel policies or what curriculum is being taught in classrooms to give your kids a quality education. The Board articulates and approves school district goals through our Strategic Plan, such as increasing student graduation rates or teaching community culture, and then it evaluates our progress toward meeting those goals. And while the Board does not have much control over how much funding the district will receive from the state, it does have oversight of how those funds can be used in our schools. Being a volunteer member of the school board is a way of demonstrating not only a deep sense of commitment to enriching the quality of life in our community, but also a willingness to work hard to improve it. Being a board member can sometimes be a difficult and thankless job, requiring learning about difficult and complex issues and then responding to the often competing interests of constituents, but it is also a highly rewarding way to give back to the community.

    This month on November 19th, there will be some newly elected members taking their seats on the school board. Frank Cook, Mike Cronk, and Daisy Northway will be replacing Lisa Conrad and Jill Kranenburg who decided not to run for their fifth term, and Stretch Blackard, who stepped up and volunteered this past spring to finish up the remaining term of an open seat. Lisa first ran for the Board along with Jill in 2006. Lisa Conrad has been the Board President for the past 8 years, first chosen as President in November of 2010. Each of these extraordinary community volunteers have put in hundreds of hours unpaid service that has been focused on helping to create the best schools possible for our students to learn in. They learned the complexities of school finance and education law. They guided the district with insight and wisdom and humor through good times and through times that were sometimes tough. They leave the district much better off than they found it. I would like to publicly thank them for their many years of dedicated and committed service to the students, staff, and communities of Alaska Gateway School District.

    Nelson Mandela is famously credited as having once said “Education is the most powerful weapon that we can use to change the world”. These school board members, both those who are coming in to pick up the cause, and those who have served so faithfully and well over many years, have dedicated themselves to the ideal of a quality education for all, so that our children are able to fully participate in active public life. Whenever you see these folks out and about in your communities, be sure to thank them for the good work that they do every day, to make our world a better place for us all.

    Friday, September 13, 2018

    Last October, the Alaska State Board of Education rolled out the Alaska Educational Challenge initiative. The “Challenge” is an intentional approach to improving education in Alaska, that AGSD is a part of. While those of us inside the profession of education know that there are a lot of great things taking place in our schools, there can be no doubt that we have a lot more to do to get our students where we want them to be. The Challenge was developed by hundreds of Alaskans with a shared commitment to make our schools better. There were parents and community members, employers and university people, and teachers and school administrators who were all asked the big question, “What is our vision for the future of Alaska’s youth?”. In response to that question, they developed a set of priorities that I have aligned to the AGSD Strategic Plan, that you can see below:

    Alaska’s Challenge
    1. Amplify student learning
    AGSD Strategic PlanStudent Engagement

    Teaching and Learning

    1. Inspire tribal and community ownership of educational excellence
    Cultural knowledgeCommunity Partnerships
    1. Modernize the education system
    Student Engagement
    1. Ensure excellent educators
    Staff Recruitment and Retention
    1. Promote safety and well-being
    School Culture

    For more information on Alaska’s Educational Challenge: https://education.alaska.gov/akedchallenge/edchallengereport.PDF

    Everything we are doing in the district is intended to meet these state and district goals. This year we are working on some very basic and measurable goals in the area of Student Engagement and Teaching & Learning, that will help our students step up to meet the “Challenge”. One example this an explicit goal for the entire district is to have every third grade student reading on grade level by the end of the year. This seems like an obvious goal, and in many ways it is. But the fact is, that many students in our district start kindergarten well behind, and unless we can get them caught up by the time they are in the third grade, statistically they often never catch up, and remain behind throughout their school years. The exciting thing is that we KNOW we can change this, with help from parents who read to their kids, and make sure they don’t miss too much school. What the schools are doing, is to focus the efforts of our teachers and staff. To do that, we have revised our reading curriculum, we have hired a reading intervention specialist who is based in Tok School this year, and we have hired a position whose purpose is to support the science of teaching through personalized and blended learning instruction. Teaching is, in fact, Rocket Science! Our teachers use sophisticated measures of reading performance to diagnose complex learning issues, and then they work collaboratively in teams to develop intervention strategies for students on an individual basis. One example of the way that we are doing this is by re-thinking the long used practice of grouping students according to their reading ability. While on the surface this makes sense, what learning scientists have discovered about reading groups is that in order for them to be effective, they need to be organic and fluid and focused on specific reading skills, such as fluency and phonemic awareness, based on continual assessment. And it doesn’t hurt for the reading material to be interesting either! What is important is to know, is that we can all play an important part in ensuring that our kids can read at level. 

    Friday, August 11, 2018

    School starts on Monday the 20th at all AGSD schools. This is a very exciting start to the year in the school district…the hard work that is being done by our dedicated staff is simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating, as we prepare for our students to come back to school. As a part of meeting the goals established by the Board in our Strategic Plan, the district has two projects, RAVE and ACHILL that are providing some wonderful opportunities for our students to learn hands-on technical and workplace skills. Because of these projects, we have also been able to hire several additional teachers at several of our schools. This includes a new Elementary Reading Specialist at Tok School, who will be working to meet the district’s goal of having all students reading at grade level by the end of the 3rd grade. Statistically, students who are behind in the 3rd grade really have a hard time catching back up, and this person will help change them to get on level. Someone who does not read well is at a disadvantage in our society, and we need that to change.

    RAVE is a program that is designed to train students with the workplace and technical skills that they need to be competitive seeking local employment opportunities, which dovetails well with the Variable Schedule. ACHILL is a program that uses learning sled dog care as a means to teach our students about medical careers. These students take university classes and work with veterinarians and dog mushers to learn skills that will help them should they choose to pursue a career in healthcare. While in these classes, our students also learn outdoor and cultural skills, boating safety, and about gathering food.

    Some families may remember the Gateway Afterschool Program that the district had some year ago, commonly known as GAP. We are VERY excited to let everyone know that GAP is back, and that we will be starting up the program this fall. GAP will provide after school opportunities to students all across the district by creating experiential programs that include art and music, and that will provide homework and tutoring to students who need it after school. The district is currently advertising for staff to work with students, and is also seeking volunteers who may have something specific that they would like to teach our students.

    And finally, do you know a student who may have dropped out of school, but would like to complete their high school diploma? Pathways is the AGSD drop-out prevention program, and last year 10 of the 26 students who graduated in the district were Pathways students. Getting a high school diploma is one the keys to getting ahead in todays world of work, and for students who are ready to put in the hard work, the school district is ready to design a program that will help them to complete their high school program. If you know of a student who might benefit from this program, please let us know, or ask them to call the school district. 

    June 10, 2018

    This has been an exciting year of accomplishments for the school district. We have several new projects that focus on Career and Technical Education (what we used to call Vocational Education) and have started a Dropout Prevention that seems to be working. Our numbers are up by nearly 50 students district wide. And, even though getting adequate state funding continues to be a struggle for districts across the state, because we have a couple of large federal grants, our finances are manageable. As we come to the close of this year, it seems appropriate to look back and take stock of some of the major changes that have taken place that improve our schools.

    One of our major accomplishments is completing a year-long project to update the district’s Strategic Plan, which was a Board Goal. The Strategic Plan has 6 elements that focus on students, staff, and community culture. The School Board has directed the administration to make “Student Engagement”, and “Quality Staff Retention and Recruitment” our priorities in addressing the Strategic Plan this year, and a lot has been done toward meeting those priorities.

    To address the goal of improving Student Engagement, among other things, we have created a new “variable” schedule at several of our schools, with more schools planning on participating starting next fall. This new schedule creates longer blocks of time for students to be able to really dig into the topic at hand, such as Art or Mathematics or Welding or Subsistence skills, and does not change the total amount of learning time that students get. Our drop-out prevention program is called Pathways, and we have 26 students enrolled across the district. Students who have life challenges that have prevented them from graduating can work in a flexible schedule, do work-study, and work through a facilitated curriculum at their own speed. So far we have had 6 graduates since fall, and at last report no students have dropped out of that program. The new grants we have received are allowing us the financial resources to do such things as hire a career counselor for next year, create a “Maker-space” lab in the school that will allow students to learn 3-D design and printing, and implement new course programs like Greenhouse Agriculture.

    On the goal of improving Quality Staff Recruitment and Retention, I am happy to report that we have 100% retention of our principals and principal-teachers, for the first time in many years. Three teachers retired after many years of incredible service to our students, include Marlys House (25 years at Eagle), Leland Monroe (21 years at Tok) and Paula Canner (13 years at Tok). We are all so grateful for everything that they have done for our students over the years. Four other teachers have decided to move on, and we also thank them for their dedication to their student while they were here. In collaboration with our teachers, the district has developed and implemented an all new teacher evaluation system that is currently in the process of being researched for reliability by the Montana State School of Education. The evaluation system was approved by DEED, and we are in our first full year of implementation.

    This year AGSD was very excited to receive the “School District Collaboration” award from the Alaska HeadStart Association for our work with the Tanana Chiefs Conference supporting early education and preschool. As the funding for that project is now coming to end, we are seeking ways to continue the very important work of getting our youngest students off to a good start in their education.

    And lastly, the district would like to thank each of our communities for their support of our teachers this year. Without support like this, the job of educating our students becomes very difficult…thank you for welcoming teachers to your community, for being willing to share your expertise with our students, and in general, for making the school district a wonderful place to live and work and learn.

    February 14, 2018

    It is no secret that there is a growing national teacher shortage, or that Alaska has struggled for many years to keep quality staff. As a state, Alaska has an average educator turnover rate of about 40%. The average turnover rate of teachers and administrators in rural Alaska is much higher, and in some Alaska districts it is as high as 80% annually. According to research done by University of Alaska Anchorage's Center for Alaska Education Policy Research, about 400 educators… teachers and administrators…are hired from outside Alaska each year to staff our rural schools, but most stay less than 2 years. These researchers have unsurprisingly and consistently pointed the quality of educators and the support of communities for their schools, as the determining factors in being able to provide a quality education to our kids. We know that students who attend schools with lower rates of staff turnover perform better, and that consistency in a school system matters a great deal. It is with this in mind that the School Board has made it a written to goal to improve the retention of quality educators.

    I did a statewide study on Educator Retention a few years ago, of nearly 400 administrators and teachers who worked in rural and bush communities from all across Alaska. I was interested in why some teachers stayed in their communities, and what school systems could do to better support their teachers. What I learned is that teachers left and stayed for basically the same reason…if they didn’t feel that they were making a difference for kids and their communities, they left. If they felt that they were making a difference, they stayed. If they felt that their communities didn’t support their schools…they tended to leave, looking for a community that did. If they felt that they were a part of a community that was committed to their schools, they tended to stay. The work being done by other research teams asking similar questions mirrors that finding, which boils down to what is essentially a basic human condition, the desire to make a positive difference.

    The real question now that we know this, is what can we do? At the district level, we are starting with simply asking them. To do that, we have started to use Staff Exit Surveys in order to understand why a teacher is deciding to leave. Some of the things we are doing include a workplace satisfaction and school climate surveys, asking about how the district is doing as an employer, and looking at what we can do to address the problems we learn about. And, we have been studying how we evaluate our staff in ways that result in improved classroom practice. All of our new staff also take a UAF course on how we do things in AGSD, so that they are familiar and comfortable with our systems. On a community level, everyone can all help our teachers by making them feel welcome to their new home. For example, Northway and Tanacross last year both hosted a community welcome dinner for all school staff, which we hope to do again this year. Just greeting new teachers with a simple hello goes far to help feel wanted and welcome. It is the little things that are easy to do that makes a difference, creates continuity in our schools, and improves the whole system for everybody.