New Anchorage schools chief's goals include better student attendance

Lisa Demer

In his first "State of the Schools" address, before a crowd of principals, department heads, supervisors and other top educators, Anchorage's new school superintendent on Friday outlined six big district goals that revolve around improving student success.

Ed Graff, who took over as superintendent in March after the sudden retirement of short-timer Jim Browder, framed the high bars for which the district is aiming by the end of the decade, as laid out in its Destination 2020 strategic plan:

• 90 percent of students proficient in reading, writing and math;

• 90 percent graduation rate;

• Every student attending school at least 90 percent of the time;

• 90 percent of parents so satisfied they would recommend their child's school;

• 100 percent of parents and students saying in surveys that they feel safe at school; and

• More efficient operations.

Graff acknowledged that the district has been through a lot of upheaval in a short time.

"We made it. We made progress. We're back here today ready to continue our work," Graff said. "And I think there's a lot that can be said for when you come together, the great things you can do."

Graff, a former teacher, principal and central office administrator, is pushing the use of hard data to tailor instruction, a track the district has been pursuing since about 2006. The use of data, from testing and demographic statistics, doesn't provide all the answers, though, he said.

"It gives us an opportunity to ask questions and investigate," he told reporters later.

The head of the teachers' union says Graff isn't making radical changes but seems thoughtful, open to ideas and focused on ways to ensure better results for students.

"Ed Graff has been around a long time," said Andy Holleman, Anchorage Education Association president. "He knows the district inside and out."

The district is in the midst of negotiating a new contract with teachers, who still are working under their old one. Graff did not mention any labor tension in his talk to the district education leaders, and Holleman said he's not anticipating strife: "He's not belligerent to labor. He's not belligerent to parents."

A number of initiatives are being put in place all at once -- new and evolving math and English curriculums, new math and English standards, a new program for monitoring whether students are learning critical skills, called "Response to Instruction."

"We had a lot of change last year. The good thing is that many of those initiatives are very closely tied and aligned with each other. ... They feel like they are different things but they really are the same thing, which is providing quality instruction for students, to higher and more rigorous standards," Martina Henke, executive director of the district language arts curriculum, said after Graff's talk.

One area getting attention is basic: attendance.

The crowd Friday applauded loudly after Graff announced that automatic calls now will be made to parents whose elementary school age children fail to show up and don't have an excused absence. Those calls already alert parents of middle and high school students to absences.

High school juniors and seniors with perfect attendance will get a chance through a lottery to win a new Jeep Patriot, being donated by Lithia Chrysler Jeep Dodge. Kindergartners and fifth- and sixth-graders with no unexcused absences -- they can be out sick or for other specific reasons -- will be entered into a pool to win a trip to Disneyland, sponsored by IBEW.

In his talk, Graff illustrated the point of good attendance with a chart that compared reading proficiency with attendance records. Alaska Native students had among the lowest reading scores, with just over 65 percent proficient, and also the poorest attendance. As a group, Native students attended 64 percent of the time, missing about one day out of three.

Overall, Anchorage students go to school more than 75 percent of the time.

As to the other measures, 75 percent of Anchorage students graduate in four years. Some 89 percent of parents already would recommend their child's school, though fewer students give the thumbs up. Nearly 81 percent of Anchorage public school students are proficient in reading, 78 percent in writing and 72 percent in math.

The safety survey shows that nearly 87 percent of staff felt safe in 2013, compared with 71 percent of students.

Reach Lisa Demer at or 257-4390.

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