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Despite budget cuts, Anchorage superintendent upbeat at State of the Schools address

Megan Edge

When Anchorage School District Superintendent Ed Graff stepped onto the stage Friday in the East Anchorage High School auditorium to give his State of the Schools address, he was strapped to a drum.

Graff, who joined students from the Clark Middle School drum line program, didn't seem to miss a beat. Packed into the auditorium was a crowd of hundreds -- educators, community business leaders and lawmakers -- who whooped and hollered as the unlikely musician marched in line with students from his district.

Graff said he did it to make a point.

"I want you to be clear on one thing: I believe in our students, community, our staff, our district, and I believe in all that we are doing," said Graff, after removing the drum and its strap from over his suit. "We know that if students are engaged they are connected to their learning. As you just witnessed, great things happen when you provide students with interesting hands-on activities."

Despite flat funding from the state, which has continually forced the ASD to cut teachers, guidance counselors, career resource personnel and summer school programs, the district still has more than 150 schools and programs aimed at helping students graduate from high school.

In his remarks Friday, Graff focused on the ASD's Destination 2020 plan, which went public in 2012.

Destination 2020 includes goals for improvement in the district, including 90 percent of students graduating from high school; 90 percent of students proficient in reading, writing and math; and every student attending class 90 percent of the time.

"Every year we lose teachers because pencils cost more. I mean, everything costs more," said Anchorage School Board President Eric Croft after Graff's speech, as Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" played in the background. "Fewer teachers, bigger classrooms and less support is not a way we achieve our high goals. So part of the board's mission and the community mission is giving the School District the resources to do what it's committed to doing."

Graff said that despite the loss of resources and budget cuts, Destination 2020 still seems possible. And Croft said he was proud the district didn't "dumb it down" and kept "aggressively pushing" for the program's success.  

In the second semester of the last school year and at the beginning of 2014, the district saw higher proficiency rates for both reading and writing but also a dip in math proficiency from the previous year. According to Croft, the lower math scores resulted from the district changing the math curriculum.  

A critical component, Graff emphasized, is attendance.

"It is kind of odd in the sense that we have the least control over that in the district," said Croft. "But if they ain't there, we can't do anything. That is why you saw the biggest impact there. We are getting them in, and that is going to trickle into everything."

Data provided by the ASD shows attendance levels steadily climbing since 2012, with high school seniors missing the most school.

2013 actually had a higher graduation rate than in 2014, with 76.2 percent of students graduating from high school in four years. In 2014, only 73.5 percent of students graduated in four years.