EDITOR'S NOTE: Here is a portion of the Alaska Public Media "Running" interview with school board candidate Don Smith. Find more municipal election interviews for "Running" in Alaska Public Media's Elections coverage. Question-and-answer interviews with Anchorage Assembly candidates can be found here.
Q: During the past five years we've seen the graduation rate just kind of inching up, and this year it went up a little bit too. Dropout rates are down just slightly. This is huge in a place that's had big problems with this. What do you attribute those positive changes to, and do you think we can keep those going?
Don Smith: There's lots of problems that have been caused by organizations like the State Department that have somehow convinced Alaskans or Anchorage residents to accept two families a month from Africa and Indonesia, totally unable to speak English, and give us the responsibility to try to educate these kids in the school system.
When I was in Anchorage High School, it was about 98 percent white students, and the balance were probably Native and one or two black students in the school. Today we're 48 percent white, 52 percent other, and that clearly is causing problems. I think our numbers are dropping because we're importing all these people that aren't up to the standards that we had set for the school. And consequently it's drawing us downward, not upward.
Q: It has in the past but now the graduation rate has actually just gone up and the dropout rate has just gone down a little bit after years of work to change this. So I'm asking you, what do you attribute that positive change to?
Smith: We might be just in a lucky period. I don't think it can be attributed, necessarily. I don't think there's been a big emphasis on trying to help the children that are not used to being in a school system like Anchorage has. But it may be an anomaly. I'm not sure. It's something we need a few more years to see if it's really moving in that direction.
There's a big push trying to take care of these new people coming to Anchorage. I watched my grand kids at Kincaid Elementary -- I felt they sat on their fingers for a big part of the day while they were in school because they were having to take care of problems, kids that were special needs, you know, students and, you know, people that were here from another country that couldn't speak English very well ... So I don't know.
Q: Well, what would you propose as a solution to that?
Smith: Well, there is no solution. You know, we can't tell all these people to go back to Africa or back to Indonesia or wherever they've been imported from. But you know, and people shake their heads and wonder why in the world we're having so much problem with housing. And on and on and on.
The reason we're having some of these problems is that we're bringing people into our state with nothing. And we're putting them up in a place to live, we're feeding them, we're doing all these things. Costing a lot of money. And frankly exasperating some of the problems of educating children.
So it's gonna take a while, and I don't think it's diminished.
I don't think that Catholic Social Services is planning to reduce the number of families they bring in here every month.
Q: As a school board member, is there anything you can do to help solve this problem you can see?
Smith: Probably not. I mean, I think we're sort of stuck (between) a rock and a hard place. Somebody, and I don't know who it is, authorized this to happen. But agreed, I don't think they can just do it to us. I think that somebody in state government, or somebody in municipal government has agreed to allow us to be a refugee city. And we've got thousands and thousands of people that have come here totally unprepared.
Q: And so another issue in the Anchorage School District is the children from all walks of life coming into school without breakfast, without proper warm clothing. This has been an ongoing issue and the school district has done some work to kind of try to provide them with food and clothing. Are they doing enough? Should we address this another way?
Smith: In some ways I think they're overreacting.
You take a school in Northeast Anchorage that's got 52 percent minority or kids that are not part of the community a few years ago, and so their attitude is "Well, we've just got to give everybody a free lunch because we don't want to embarrass those kids that are truly having to have a free lunch." So all kids get a free lunch.
Well, those statistics are used in the final analysis as to the percentage, I'm guessing it's way smaller than what they're reporting. But they have this feeling that they've got to try to make everybody feel like they're OK and there's no problems in their community. The kids know who's really getting free lunch. The kids know the situation among their peers. But district officials seem to think that if you're at close to the halfway mark you've got to feed everybody.
Q: Real quick, there's been a reduction in English as a second language program during the recent cuts. What's your response to that? It's pretty important -- we've got 100 languages here.
Smith: I know. And it's caused a lot of problems in that people have to try to catch up. It's not very easy. I didn't know that somebody had cut the English program, so I'm not aware of it.
Anchorage Daily News staff