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Statewide survey aims to focus Alaska education conversation

Suzanna CaldwellAlaska Dispatch News

There's a disconnect in perceptions between schools and the communities they serve, according to a new study that hopes to suggest ways of bridging that gap.

The study, "Enhancing Student Learning and Performance: 2013 Statewide Survey," includes data gathered from just under 1,200 teachers and 750 households across the state. The focus? Finding the differences in the groups' awareness of public education and moving the conversation forward, according to Jonathan King, a senior economist with Northern Economics and the survey's project manager.

For example, King noted in a presentation Thursday that while most urban and rural teachers agreed that their communities welcomed them, they felt there was disconnect between level of respect and support they received from their communities.

"So how do we move this conversation forward?" King asked.

King gave his presentation in Anchorage just as Anchorage Chamber of Commerce President Andrew Halcro gave the same talk to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce.

But how to go forward is the main question facing educators, parents and lawmakers. As the state grapples with a $2 billion budget shortfall this year, it's also trying to figure out how to improve or reform the school system.

Gov. Sean Parnell addressed the issue in his State of the State speech last week, calling for this year's legislative session to be the "education session." As legislators tackle issues that include charter school funding, eliminating the high school exit exam, and amending the Alaska Constitution to allow public funds to go to private or religious schools, big questions have followed about how to fund education in the 49th state, especially when it comes to the base student allocation funding formula.

However, the study, commissioned by the Partnership for Public Education and paid for by the National Education Association of Alaska, specifically avoided questions related to funding and vouchers.

"We knew that anything on funding from the NEA would be dead on arrival," King said. Instead, the study focuses on perceptions.

The survey found that households tended to think that societal issues (like violence and drugs and alcohol) were more prevalent and had a stronger effect on classrooms than teachers reported experiencing. That said, households and teachers generally ordered the overall effect of societal issues similarly, though there was one noticeable difference. Households felt that drug and alcohol use was the primary factor hindering student success, and teachers disagreed, saying that chronic absences were the biggest problem.

"Households really think student drug and alcohol use is a big problem," King said, "But broadly, across the system, teachers are telling us that it's not."

Teachers estimate that chronically absent students represent 6 to 10 percent of a school population, but that the small minority ends up needing extra attention and ends up slowing the entire class down.

Households surveyed that do not have students currently enrolled in schools generally had a less favorable view of public school performance, but they still represent a important group that pays property taxes and is likely vote in local elections. "Do we have a community issue or a performance issue?" King asked. "It's probably somewhere in between."

While teachers feel they understand their communities, they are worried about the public's perception of their profession. Urban teachers reported that 62 percent felt respected and supported by their communities, though more than half agreed with statements that they were concerned their communities have a negative perception of them and their profession.

They survey also asked teachers what they would want to help improve education both in and outside of the classroom. The responses included more parental involvement, additional community support, smaller class sizes, access to more vocational courses, increased support staff and requiring pre-kindergarten education.

King noted that there has been lots of talk on improved outcomes on a government level but that no one has talked to stakeholders about how to proceed. He hopes the study can serve as a road map and the start of a conversation, especially in a time when state budgets are tight.

The parental involvement issue is one the Anchorage School District knows firsthand. Superintendent Ed Graff said February is Visit Our Schools Month, when parents and the public will be able to visit local schools during specific times.

"I want the school culture to be there," he said. "For the ownership to be there."

Anchorage School Board Member and Senior Director of Education at United Way Kameron Perez-Verdia agreed.

"We're trying to create data-driven conversations," he said. "It's the opportunity for a different discussion about outcomes for kids."

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