The Anchorage School District is spending a good share of its federal stimulus money on practical solutions that clearly make sense but had been unaffordable until now. Students who don't know where they're headed, little kids who never learn to read well enough to keep up, youths who get off track due to alcohol or drugs -- those are among the targets for extra help. They are all students in danger of dropping out before graduation.
Preventing drop-outs, and increasing the graduation rate, is one of the district's main goals with the $76 million in stimulus funds it gets this year and next.
Mindful of the fact that the money disappears in two years, the district is also using a substantial chunk of it on one-time expenses to train staff, purchase new textbooks and other materials, upgrade technology and do building projects.
More than a quarter of the money -- $21 million -- is scheduled for technology. All district schools will get wireless networks, which are now only in about two dozen schools.
For pilot programs that require added staff, like the drop-out prevention initiatives, the district knows that it won't be able to continue every program when the stimulus money runs out. But students will benefit in the meantime. And the district can test different approaches, and decide at the end of two years what works best.
The district has a well-crafted plan, and we're eager to see what kind of improvements will follow.
Here are some other ways the district plans to spend the money:
• Setting career and education goals. Each middle school student will work with an adult to develop individual career and college plans based on their interests and skills. This will help determine the most appropriate classes and direction in high school. The plans will be updated as they move through high school.
This might seem basic to helping kids see the importance and purpose of their education. But it takes a concerted effort and a plan to follow through with every single student.
• Keeping marginal students in school. More students who now are expelled or given long suspensions -- virtually assuring their academic failure -- will be kept in some kind of classes. A teacher will be assigned at each high school and middle school to intervene. For example, students who are now expelled for two violations of the drug and alcohol policy would get another chance. Students who are dangerous, use weapons, or sell drugs, would still be expelled, said Superintendent Carol Comeau.
• Adding preschool. The district will begin offering preschool classes in parts of town with the biggest need, and where there are schools with space available to handle the program. More and more, said Comeau, educators have begun to recognize that some children head down the path toward eventually dropping out during their pre-school and kindergarten years. A child who isn't proficient at reading in the elementary grades can't do the work in middle and high school.
• Early alert to problems. The district plans to buy software that will monitor for when a student is in danger of failing, and alert staff members who can then intervene.
There are plenty of other items on the district's list -- updated textbooks, more summer school classes, more professional training for teachers and administrators, upgraded technology.
With the money only lasting two years, the district's biggest challenge will be figuring out what new efforts make the most difference -- and how to pay for them later.
BOTTOM LINE: The Anchorage district has a good plan to boost graduation rates with federal stimulus funds.