Judge threatens to appoint 'master' to fix Bush schools

COURT ORDER: In fragile districts, student proficiency lags and dropout rates are high.

April 6, 2010 

The state's oversight of rural Alaska schools is so flawed a state judge is threatening to step in and appoint someone to take over in order to bring to students in the Bush the basic education the judge says they are being denied.

Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason says in a recent court order that despite years of previous court orders to do better when it comes to educating kids in rural Alaska, the state Department of Education and Early Development is still failing.

In the 450-student Yupiit School District in Southwest Alaska, for example, only a third of third-graders are proficient in reading, writing and math, according to Department of Education state test scores from last year. By the 10th grade, only one in 10 students was considered at grade level for math, and one in five for reading and writing. It is one of the worst-performing school districts in the state -- but it is not alone.

The other districts at the bottom of the performance charts are Lower Yukon, Yukon Flats, Yukon-Koyukuk and the Northwest Arctic Borough. In these and other fragile districts, dropout rates are high and sending a kid to college is rare.

Gleason is giving the department two months to show what she deems a proper effort to remedy the situation, according to her March 31 order in the Moore v. Alaska case. The lawsuit was filed in 2004. The plaintiffs include some school districts. The suit started as a lawsuit from rural districts asking for more money but it has turned into a question of what role the state plays in rural school districts.

If the state fails by the deadline, the judge may appoint a special master. Deputy Commissioner of Education Les Morse said it's not clear from the judge's order exactly what role that special master would play in the department.

It would not be the first time Alaska courts have said a department of state government is incompetent. The courts took over the Department of Corrections after a 1981 lawsuit and revamped it.

Today, Alaska legislators from the House and Senate education committees are meeting to discuss the order.

Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau, who is not involved in the case but has been watching it closely like many other educators, says the judge is essentially asking for a shift in what for decades has been a hands-off department that has favored local control. The Alaska Board of Education has long favored giving school districts nearly full rein, but the court is saying that some of the smaller districts can't accomplish what they need to on their own and that ultimately it's the state's legal obligation to help.

Morse said that his department has been helping the districts but the sea change that the court is demanding takes time. The department has hired expert teachers to drop in on the schools for teacher training, he said.

Morse said the department hasn't yet decided how it will respond to the court's order.

Education in the Bush has always been a challenge. It's expensive and cultural differences mean a lot of children start school needing language help. Some schools serving K-12 grades have only one or two teachers because they are so small.

One of the directives Gleason gave was that the curriculum in the districts needs to be aligned with state tests.

Yupiit School District Chief School Administrator Howard Diamond said that burden needs to fall on the state, which has more resources. His district, which includes schools in Akiachak, Akiak and Tuluksak, is one of the many plaintiffs in the case. "You can't start telling teachers in our school districts or our small offices that we wear several different hats," he said. "We need the state to do that work, and not expect the individual districts to all of a sudden magically have all of these incredible people to accomplish that task."

Northwest Arctic Borough Schools Superintendent Norman Eck doesn't think it would take turning the world upside down or draining the state's coffers to bring quality education to his schools in and around Kotzebue. His biggest desire: preschool.

He also wants something outside the purview of the Department of Education.

"The single most important thing that can be done to improve education in the Bush is to have public safety in place," he said. "We have our students in villages with no police officers and families suffering from violence and bad activities and kids who are under a threat of feeling unsafe."

"A lot of them come to school exhausted because they were up all night or there was too much drinking in the household," he said.

Diamond wants good housing for his teachers so they aren't sharing substandard shacks with each other. He also wants the University of Alaska to beef up its education program and produce qualified educators whom he can hire. He's tired of having to pick from teachers in the Lower 48 who are looking for an Alaska adventure and leave after they quickly find out it's not what they expected.

"We need help," Diamond said. "We hope that through this order that now some of the things that we've been asking for will come to pass and we will start moving in a direction that has been desperately needed for a long time."

Find Megan Holland online at adn.com/contact/mholland or call 257-4343.

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