Andrew Halcro: Business community needs to rally around schools

Anchorage BusinessJanuary 26, 2014 

It's time for the Anchorage business community to rally around the school district. More than 90 percent of the students in Anchorage attend public schools, and that's 90 percent of our potential workforce. With seniors being Alaska's fastest-growing demographic, and the low unemployment rate taxing the available labor pool, the school district plays a critical role in creating a skilled workforce.

Great work is happening in the ASD, but too few of the success stories seem to get heard over the din of criticism. District graduates rank above the national average on college SAT and ACT scores. Eighth-grade reading scores are above the national average.

The district has seen graduation rates rise 17 percent since 2005. ASD students have more than 150 education choices. Ninety percent of parents say they would recommend their child's school, which tracks with the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce's member survey on education.

And even though more than 50 percent of kindergarteners show up on the first day of school not fully prepared, the effort by ASD educators to remedy that learning gap is impressive.

At the heart of our education challenge are the rapidly changing demographics of our community and a too-slow slow response to shifting student trends.

In 1992, 29 percent of the district's student population identified itself as minority. Today that number is 55 percent. This "globalization" of Anchorage public schools has created a more complex and demanding education challenge.

At a meeting of leaders from Anchorage's emerging cultures, including representatives of the Hmong-, Sudanese- and Polynesian-American communities, all identified education as a primary concern. Language, cultural and socio-economic barriers affect student attendance and success. The effects on graduation rates are evident.

With the current legislative session being called the "education session," state lawmakers will be addressing public school funding. Historically, the discussion over public school funding has been limited to three groups of participants: lawmakers, school districts and bargaining groups. There has been very little participation by the business community -- until now.

While the Anchorage Chamber has not taken a position on school funding levels, one of our legislative priorities for 2014 is improving public education. There's no doubt that the proposed budget cuts by ASD will have the opposite effect.

For example, let's consider the proposed elimination of 10 middle school counseling positions. Education experts agree that seventh and eighth grade are two of the most critical years in a student's education. A key predictor of a student's likelihood of graduating is how he or she fares in middle school.

In a recent survey of more than 1,100 public school teachers in Alaska, middle school teachers were asked to identify the issues that most inhibit learning in their classrooms. Chronic absenteeism and difficult home environment were two of the major factors.

While these issues occur outside the four walls of school, at the end of the day it's the teachers, the schools and the district that are held accountable when students don't graduate.

Such external factors are why middle school counselors and resource officers are crucial. They also highlight the need for ASD, local and state agencies, education advocates and the business community to collaborate in addressing the issues that undermine student performance. The school district cannot do it alone.

Fortunately, that collaboration has already begun.

The Anchorage Chamber, Anchorage School District, United Way, National Education Association and Anchorage Economic Development Corp. have partnered to improve our public school outcomes.

One initiative, called 90 percent by 2020, seeks to raise both attendance and graduation rates to 90 percent. This would proceed along with the Live Work Play project, which seeks to make Anchorage the No. 1 city in America by 2025. These innovative efforts have attracted business and community leaders committed to advancing our public education system.

With oil tax reform working and a potential natural gas pipeline on the horizon, the business community has a vested interest in making Anchorage public schools -- and 90 percent of our potential workforce -- stronger. It's time for everyone to get engaged in the discussion about how to strengthen public education -- for the good of all of us.

Andrew Halcro is president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.

 

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