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Anchorage's new superintendent shares vision for area schools

Jerzy Shedlock

The Anchorage School District’s newly minted superintendent answered questions Friday for the media, expounding on his vision for the area’s schools and sharing a bit of personal background. The majority of the former teacher turned administrator’s experience is in elementary education, but Ed Graff said he’s ready to lead Alaska’s largest school district.

Graff officially accepted the ASD superintendent position March 18 at an Anchorage School Board meeting. The week prior to Graff's acceptance, former Superintendent Jim Browder, whom the district hired last year, announced his retirement at a press conference. Browder had been hired after a nationwide search that cost the district $54,000. Since the announcement, Browder appeared in the final round of interviews for the top spot at an urban district in Iowa.

Anchorage residents scoffed at the idea of another costly search, but the board put that complaint to rest when school board president Jeannie Mackie, during the same press conference in which Browder said he’d be stepping down, presented Graff as the district’s next leader.

Graff has worked under Browder as the district’s chief academic officer, a position previously called assistant superintendent. A large part of his duties were to gather research and analysis to use in advising the superintendent. Graff has held that position since 2009 and is familiar with the district’s proposed 2013-2014 budget that calls for a $25 million cut.

The 4.4 percent cut to the $573 million budget will eliminate more than 200 jobs, mostly in support. The cuts were inevitable, ASD contends. The district’s revenue comes from three main sources: local property taxes, state and federal funding. After nearly a decade of increases in per-student funding, those dollars began declining last school year.

Graff said his style differs from Browder’s, but he agrees with the initiatives developed during the past several months.

“At this point, we have a balanced budget that we have presented to our school board. It’s been adopted and we’ll be bringing it forward to the municipality next week for their approval,” Graff said.

Path to superintendent

Beginning as an ASD substitute teacher in 1991 -- a period during which the district wasn’t making new hires, Graff said -- the new superintendent felt he’d produce the best impact within a classroom. He wanted to emulate teachers who had inspired him, he said. 

He then began teaching fourth grade at Gladys Wood Elementary in Anchorage. He often reflects on that first year, thinking about how students rose above the expectations of teachers and parents. “I think too often we underestimate students’ capabilities,” Graff said.

For nearly a decade, he continued teaching. In 2000, he switched from teacher to administrator, working as an assistant principal at Bowman Elementary. By 2001, he became principal at another Anchorage elementary. As Graff’s career progressed, he said, opportunities arose to become a “teacher leader.” He said he realized his impact could spread beyond a single classroom to an entire school.

Graff said he feels he was successful in the transition. Values he tried to impress upon students and teachers -- healthy lifestyles through exercise and higher academic expectations for students -- remain in place at his previous workplaces, he said.

Continuing down the path of elementary education, Graff became the district’s executive director of elementary education in 2008. He only remained in that position one year before becoming the chief academic officer.

Goals and tradition

Graff argued his background in elementary education doesn’t make him any less capable of guiding the entire district, which consists of nearly 50,000 students and, according to its 2012 annual report, about 5,800 employees.

“Both of my parents worked in education for years, and I think at heart I’m a teacher,” Graff said. “And whether or not I have a certain content expertise, I understand what good teacher is, and I understand students, and know how to get the best out of people.”

Graff is committed to fulfilling the goals laid out in Destination 2020, the district’s comprehensive plan, he said.

Much of the plan was drafted under Carol Comeau, who served as the district’s superintendent for 12 years before Browder. Graff worked under Comeau as well. He didn’t detail his working relationship with Comeau. Instead, he said the goals outlined in Destination 2020 resulted from a group effort.

“It’s something that I think we have a great deal of respect for, the board developing the plan with the staff,” he said. “It’s a process that’s going to continue to move forward.”

Common Core

The focus is on the classroom, Graff said. He played a key role in choosing the plan’s initiatives, which include Common Core State Standards and a new K-8 math curriculum. Common Core State Standards is a national initiative that aims to align school curriculum across the country. It’s argued that students’ test scores on standardized tests will improve under the initiative. 

Anchorage Education Association President Andy Holleman disagrees. Holleman called the initiative "canned curriculum" during a separate interview with the Alaska Dispatch. Restricting how educators teach students hurts education, and may be driving the best and brightest teachers away from the state, he said.

Graff said implementing core standards will take “ongoing professional development.” The district needs to balance student achievement and financial uncertainty, he said.

“I’m looking for sustainability, longevity ... Right now that’s focusing on our Destination 2020 and making sure we’re hitting performance measures, seeing a noted growth in our students' development, as well as utilizing (the district’s) resources in a more efficient manner.” 

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com