Status quo not option for Anchorage schools

By MAYOR DAN SULLIVANMay 29, 2012 

On June 6 and 7, the third and final phase of the Mayor's Education Summit will commence. The purpose will be to take the lessons learned from the previous Summit sessions and turn them into an achievable action plan.

The Summit began in November 2011 with 100 participants, including educators, administrators, business leaders, legislators, school board and Assembly members, parents, students, and concerned citizens attending presentations by national leaders in education reform and then evaluating scenarios to improve student performance in Anchorage.

A consensus was reached on four preliminary goals, which the participants agreed would be necessary to improve our education system: getting the best qualified teachers and principals in every school; setting higher performance standards for students; providing more choices for parents and students; and developing a greater level of community involvement in local education.

The first goal, getting the best qualified educators and principals in our schools, reflects one of the key elements of success that Finland employed in becoming the best-educated country in the world. Realizing that having the highest quality teachers was essential to improving student performance, they elevated the status of teacher to that of other top professions, such as doctors, lawyers, architects, etc. Becoming a teacher in Finland is very competitive and the training is much more rigorous than in the United States. Their results, in terms of student success, have been significant.

The need for the second goal, setting the education bar higher, was brought home dramatically by a presentation from Kati Haycock of the National Education Trust. Her presentation showed how poorly Alaska and Anchorage students perform when compared with national and international standards and left many of the participants stunned. We have been told that our students are performing above average. What we haven't been told is that Alaska requires a much lower standard than other states, in fact the fifth-lowest standard in the nation. In reality, we are well below average in a country that is well below the international performance levels.

The goal of providing more choices for students resulted from the fact that there are hundreds of students on the waiting list for programs such as Chugach Optional, and the ABC schools. Student performance is significantly higher in these programs and parents want their children to have access to them. Currently, there is a lottery process to gain entry into these programs. You shouldn't have to win the lottery to get a superior educational opportunity. We need to meet the demand and provide more of these successful options.

The final goal of greater community involvement was agreed upon because making change in education is a significant task, with many challenges and barriers. Only by galvanizing the Anchorage community around the common goal of becoming the best-performing school district in the country will we truly be able to make progress.

These goals were presented to members of the public in Phase 2 of the Summit, a series of six Community Conversations held in February. The participants generally agreed with each of the scenarios and they also advocated for more vocational opportunities. A majority also suggested that if there are expanded choices, they should come from within the district.

The June Summit will reconvene the original Summit participants and some of the Community Conversation participants to develop strategies to achieve these goals, with the overlying realization that the status quo is not an option. For more information and to review results from the Summit's initial phases go to muni.org/educationsummit.

We have the resources, the facilities, and the spirit within this community to truly become one of the nation's great school districts. I look forward to working with incoming Superintendent Jim Browder, the School Board, and our community to make real change in Anchorage education.

Dan Sullivan has served as mayor of Anchorage since 2009.

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