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Compass: Many lawmakers fail our public schools

The state of Alaska and many legislative representatives are failing Alaska's students. Make no mistake, Alaska's public education system is under attack by a vocal few in power who would further personal agendas and the interests of a selection of students, rather than promote solutions for all Alaska students as mandated by Alaska's constitution.

One of the many issues at hand is the gutting of Alaska's successful "Middle School Model." The "Middle School Model" is a vetted parent/student/teacher team approach that follows well- researched, widely implemented, effective education methods transitioning young students to high school. Sadly, next year, and likely forever, the Anchorage School District will see dramatic changes to this productive system.

Basically all middle schools will become modified "old-school" junior highs, and teachers will pick up an additional class, teaching six out of seven classes. There will now be a daily expectation for each teacher to manage, evaluate and individualize instruction for about 180 students. Planning, grading, updating Zangle with assignment grades, contacting parents and making copies will be allotted a 45-minute period each day, dramatically reducing the amount of time teachers have to post quarterly grades in Zangle, and diminishing the feedback and written responses on assignments that teachers were formerly able to accomplish with 150 students under the middle-school model. Quizzes and tests are likely to be reduced to multiple choice, with time limitations abolishing formats that previously required written responses.

There will be no shared team-planning period for important transitional educational development aspects such as:

• Designing cross-curricular units of study

• Planning test days so that students don't face two big tests on the same day

• Creating a shared list of class discipline procedures and classroom behavior expectations/rules

• Cooperatively discussing students who are susceptible to falling through the cracks and

• Devising techniques for getting those students extra support.

• Developing a forward plan by meeting with parents of students having issues at school -- whether low grades, low self-esteem, no friends, behavior, etc.

I would like to challenge any legislator to spend one week in a middle-school classroom teaching 180 pre-teens, preparing assignments, being accessible to students needing additional help, grading work in a timely manner and manually entering 180 grades in Zangle.

While grossly misleading rhetoric focuses on early test scores of students statewide, there is much left out of the discussion that impacts those scores in Alaska. Most notable is that one-third of Alaska's students enter school with no preschool experience. Studies show that children with high-quality early learning experiences are 40 percent less likely to need special education, on average outperform those who did not on school achievement tests between the ages of 9 and 14, and are 30 percent more likely to graduate from high school.

Legislators should be focusing on building upon public school successes demonstrated since 2003:

• Third grade reading scores have steadily increased from 80.7 percent in 2009 to 85.2 percent in 2013.

• Alaska's students are third in the nation for academic growth between 4th and 8th grade.

• In the last decade, Alaska's graduation rate has increased by 10 percent, three times faster than the national average.

• 2013 marked the highest graduation rate in ASD history.

• 2013 recorded one of the lowest dropout rates.

• Class of 2013 had more than $44 million in scholarship offerings.

• Alaska's students on average score higher than the national average on ACT and SAT.

Alaska ranks 50th (!) in the U.S. in the percentage of state and local general expenditures spent on public education. That is a fact that parents and teachers find unacceptable -- witness the thousands of people rallying behind grassroots organizations like Great Alaska Schools.

Rather than continuing to cut funding for Alaska's public education then blaming the system for not performing, a focus on solutions and achievements that benefit all students would be far more productive. There are tremendous successes statewide in public education and as Alaska's legislative body, funding a strong public education system that includes true middle schools should be your number one priority.

Julie Besch is a middle-school teacher with 25 years experience in the Anchorage School Distirct, the spouse of a middle-school teacher and parent of a sixth-grader about to enter middle school.



By JULIE BESCH