Alaska Notebook: Failing public schools? Look and listen again

February 22, 2014 

Schools? Look and listen again

It's become rote rap in some quarters: Our public schools are failing, and that's why we need to amend the Alaska Constitution to allow public funding for private schools. Unionized teachers and school district administrations have become entrenched, doctrinaire bureaucracies unresponsive to parents, the marketplace and the global economy. We better fix our schools because they're broken, and our kids are hurting.

That sure hasn't been my experience in the Anchorage public schools.

Problems? Sure. I'll bet there are problems every day at every school. That's what happens when you accept every student and all the freight that comes with those students.

But the notion that our public-school teachers are self-serving siphoners of the public treasury just doesn't match reality.

I haven't agreed with every teacher on every point in my kids' schooling. But I've seen teachers going strong from the pledge in the morning until well after the last bell. Stress is a constant and care is a must. And the teacher must always be "on."

Some of the numbers are sobering; Alaska's average performance in test scores, our near-bottom performance in graduation rates. But in Anchorage, some of those numbers are improving -- graduation rates in particular have risen steadily since the middle of the last decade to near 80 percent. A few years ago the United Way goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020 seemed ambitious at best. Now, with the class of 2020 in sixth grade, 90 percent is no longer such a reach -- unless we insist on cutting teachers and counselors.

There's more than one way to graduation. The district offers 130 different schools and programs on the road to graduation, including foreign language immersion, ABC schools, optional schools and charter schools developed by parents. Yes, there are waiting lists. Does anyone think waiting lists, either public or private, would end with public funding for private schools?

Sometimes the schools' story isn't told by the numbers on test scores. If you watched the middle schoolers arriving at Romig in west Anchorage in the morning, you might be struck by how many walk into school with musical instruments; the participation rate in music there runs about 60 percent.

Just another number? All right, check out any middle school concert. You won't see or hear failure. You'll hear music, see achievement and hope, a soloist's daring, a band growing together. If all you've been hearing is that our schools are broken, you'll be schooled when you listen to the young chorus rise.

-- Frank Gerjevic

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