Meetings spark talk about improving Anchorage schools

Rosemary Shinohara

At locations from Bayshore to Eagle River, teachers, parents, business people and others concerned about education have been meeting last week and this week to figure out how to make Anchorage's public education system better.

The meetings -- part of an initiative by Mayor Dan Sullivan -- are meant to get more of the community involved in improving schools and are building on ideas generated at a two-day conference in November on the same theme.

The first of a half-dozen meetings, at the Bayshore Club House, drew about a hundred people, and 50 to 75 came to each of the next three sessions, said Heidi Gantwerk of Viewpoint Learning, the consulting group that is guiding the discussion. A fifth meeting was scheduled Thursday night at Campbell Creek Science Center and the final community session is next Wednesday at the Anchorage Senior Center, 1900 E. 19th Ave.

The question the groups were asked to consider: "What can we do to provide every student in Anchorage with a world-class education, with outcomes comparable to the highest-performing countries."

"A focus on getting the highest quality teachers and principals has been key in every discussion," Gantwerk said.

There have also been intense discussions about school choice, the ability to attend charter schools and other alternative programs, Gantwerk said. Many of the alternatives are popular but there are waiting lists and they are not accessible for everyone, she said.

Group members raised the question, "How do we increase those type of programs?" she said.

Some participants were surprised at how poorly Alaska does compared to other states on a national test, she said.

Alaska placed at the bottom for fourth grade reading on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Jim Lepley, president of the Anchorage teachers union, said he was skeptical of the mayor's agenda at first but was pleased with the format and the discussion itself at the Bayshore session he attended.

"Community support and parental support combined with a quality teacher" is what's needed to get the best results, he said.

Lepley said he's been encouraging teachers to come to the meetings.

"We're the front lines," he said.

A show of hands revealed that more than half of those at Bayshore were School District employees, Lepley said.

But Gantwerk said a mix of residents, including high school students, people connected with small business, school administrators, parents and teachers have joined the discussion.

Shirley Nelson tutors students privately in reading and writing and is a member of the city budget advisory commission, which reviews city and school budgets.

"I'm a firm believer that a strong principal can bring it (achievement) up," she said after attending the meeting this week at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Lucy Hansen, a leader of the Polynesian Association of Alaska, also went to the Alaska Native Heritage Center and brought her two high school daughters.

"They do believe teachers need more attention and training," she said. They also think more kids should be able to participate in sports and that the fees are too high, she said.

"To me, it was very useful," Hansen said of the discussion. "I think something good will happen. All the meetings will encourage us parents to see what is really going on in the School District."

Gantwerk said Viewpoint will review surveys that participants filled out and will write a report encompassing the debate and survey information.

In November, the city invited 100 specific people to confer over two days. They set the framework for the current meetings.

The November attendees and some of the people who participated in this month's series of meetings will be brought back in June to make reform proposals.

Anchorage Daily News