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Anchorage schools superintendent discusses 'lofty' Destination 2020 goals

Megan Edge
Anchorage School District Superintendent Ed Graff accepts the class of 2014 at the West High School commencement ceremony on Monday, May 12, 2014, at the Sullivan Arena. With a new school year starting this week, Graff sat down to talk about the abrupt departure of his predecessor more than a year ago, as well as progress on the goals he inherited from longtime schools chief Carol Comeau. Erik Hill

It was just over a year ago that Ed Graff was thrown into the Anchorage School District superintendent position.

Graff followed Jim Browder, the short-term ASD superintendent who announced his retirement just eight months into his three-year contract in 2013, leaving Graff to take the heat for a round of budget cuts and layoffs.

"I wasn't aware of his transition" before it happened, Graff said last week at his East Anchorage office. "I found out the same time that everyone else did."

Browder, who was credited with helping the Anchorage School Board make $25 million in budget cuts -- including slashing teaching and resource positions -- announced his retirement abruptly in March of 2013, leaving some to speculate that Browder was leaving the district to take another position and had been brought in to make the extensive district-wide cuts. 

"I think Dr. Browder brought a different perspective to the district, and certainly his focus was to make sure we were emphasizing the utilization of data and tried to create greater alignment around what we were doing in the district," said Graff, who worked as ASD's assistant superintendent for instruction and chief academic officer under Browder as well as Browder's predecessor, longtime superintendent Carol Comeau. 

Going into the school year that starts this week, Graff is pushing new rules, including a revamp of the district's drug policy. Prior to the 2014-15 school year, students with two or more drug offenses would face expulsion. Under recent revisions to drug policy, however, the district will instead transfer them to SAVE or Benny Benson high schools.  

Graff said the goal is to not eliminate the possibility for those children to be able to receive high school diplomas. It's an effort that ties into the district's hopes of better engaging students, which in turn could help ASD meet its Destination 2020 goals.

"I think it is important for us as a district to have a strategic plan. The plans are lofty goals. Some would say they are overly ambitious, but we are all about making sure we have continuous improvement," Graff said.

Destination 2020 is a set of targets for improvement in the district -- to be met, as the name implies, by the year 2020 -- including 90 percent of students graduating from high school; 90 percent of students achieving proficiency in reading, writing and math; and every student attending class 90 percent of the time.

According to Graff, some of those goals are already close to being met, still six years away from the program's completion. One of those targets is having 90 percent of parents recommending their child's school to other parents -- he said that figure is already at 88 percent.

Attendance rates have also gone up, Graff said. Data provided by the ASD shows attendance levels steadily climbing since 2012, with high school seniors missing the most school. And although it seems the district has been most aggressive in pushing the attendance issue, with programs like a car giveaway for one 11th- or 12th-grader with perfect attendance, Graff said that's not actually the case -- that it's just a situation where the "entire community can help."

But again, Graff said, it goes back to engaging students, which is why there will also be an emphasis on student evaluations of teachers. Graff said he hopes this will give teachers, and the district, a better idea of what is working inside classrooms and what is not.

And as the year 2020 quickly approaches, Graff said it's not unreasonable that the goals will be revisited and revised, but he hopes the targets will inspire employees and students of the district to push themselves.

"There is no reason we can't revisit those goals and make changes, but we wanted to have several years of focused, intentional work before making some of those changes to things," he said.

Classes for second- to 12th-grade students begin Aug. 20. Kindergarten and first-grade classes won't begin until the following week, Aug. 27.