Frustrated by the direction of the Anchorage School District, Jim Smith has made a difficult decision: The Clark Middle School teacher is resigning at the end of the school year. Smith, who teaches seventh grade, special education and language arts, opposes the district's new focus on standardized testing, saying it lacks relevance to the overall education of students. He's also disappointed with the lack of standards for teachers.
"For me and other teachers who take that extra step, we often play the role of teacher, social worker and counselor," Smith said. "And when we're focused solely on standardized testing, the district is completely missing the boat on teaching kids, especially underprivileged kids, to simply be good people."
The Anchorage School District, the largest in Alaska, faces a tumultuous future. Budget shortfalls have put teachers and taxpayers alike on edge. District officials say their plans moving forward focus on improving performance in the classroom, a balancing act that means doing more with less. But with growing class sizes, the introduction of "canned curriculum" and an increased emphasis on test scores, will the Anchorage School District find it difficult to retain highly qualified teachers and attract new ones?
The district's teacher compensation package is an ongoing point of contention for some educators, especially given the new demands and standards they are facing. Still, district officials offer up stats -- such as the number of applications they regularly receive -- that show teachers are still interested in working in Anchorage schools.
"I think the district definitely values the work that an experienced teacher brings to the classroom, and we recognize that people will make life choices and pursue other things," said Ed Graff, the new Anchorage School District superintendent. "Given the status of the district right now, it's my understanding that there's no greater attrition occurring than any other year. There still seems to be a large pool of applicants that want to pursue a career in education" in Anchorage.
After nearly a decade of increases to per-student funding, last school year the district's revenue began declining. Now, administrators are cutting $25 million -- a 4.4 percent cut of the $573 million budget. That entails slashing more than 200 jobs. Support employees -- including teacher assistants -- are bearing the brunt of the cuts. Still, some teachers could lose their jobs, too.
The cuts come after more than a decade of relative calm under former Superintendent Carol Comeau's watch. After Comeau retired last year, the district eventually hired James Browder, a veteran administrator from Florida. He's now fleeing Alaska after introducing the cuts, citing family medical issues as his reason for not staying. The district quickly replaced Browder with Graff, who has backed Browder's approach to tightening the budget and introducing some new initiatives to the classroom.
Graff said he strongly believes in teachers as a critical asset to student achievement. With that in mind, the district is focused on the classroom, he said, committing its limited resources to the teacher-student setting. And the implementation of common, core state standards will take time.
"As we look at our limited resources and our declining revenue, we have to … come back to ensuring that we have high yielding results with those resources," Graff said. "But I think there's an appropriate level of rigor in those standards, and once we work through the professional development the results will be positive."
The biggest costs to the Anchorage School District are salaries and benefits, which make up about 85 percent of its operational budget. Salaries remained flat over the past two decades. But as elsewhere in school districts and government, benefit costs have grown, increasing 5 to 6 percent faster than inflation.
Staying competitive is a never-ending battle, and the factors pushing the best and brightest educators away from Alaska are stacking up -- a continuing trend, however, as the district did away with defined benefit retirement in 2006. And there are no Social Security benefits. The state opted out of Social Security in the 1960s, instead choosing a lucrative retirement package.
Defined benefit retirement still is in place for teachers who had it as of 2006, but new teachers are offered a 403 (b) retirement plan, which a teacher's union official described as a savings account. Once the retirement funds run out for 403 (b) recipients, they're gone.
The current retirement plan and the lack of a pension worries high school teacher Jake Todd, who is being displaced by the cuts. He's optimistic the district will find him a position. He's not optimistic about retirement. Todd described the 403 (b) plan as "a bullet to the head."
"As soon as I'm out of money, I don't qualify for anything else... I am thinking about joining the National Guard. I can get solid benefits, remain in Alaska and teach," Todd said. "I consider myself committed to the community of Anchorage, and Alaska, and education in particular. But it's like changing your religion so you can still do your job. I think it's kind of sad."
Employees can pick up and leave whenever they feel like it because no substantial retirement package ties them to the state, said Andy Holleman, president of the Anchorage Education Association.
"If a prospective teacher does the math and examines what life will be like in their 50s and 60s, there's not any way to plan for" for future security and retirement, Holleman said.
Still, the Anchorage School District isn't necessarily finding a shortage of teacher applicants, at least not yet. During the week of March 10, for instance, the district had 275 elementary teacher candidates. Areas like elementary, social studies and language arts are replete with candidates, said Robb Donohue-Boyer, the district's director of certified staffing and recruitment.
The starting salary for teachers is between about $47,000 and $52,000. About half of the district's new hires have master's degrees. The degree isn't enough to warrant a hiring bonus, but if a teacher is nationally certified, he or she receives a $2,000 annual bonus. If the teacher works in a hard-to-fill area or is an immersion teacher, he or she receives a $2,000 signing bonus.
About 35 percent of the district's teacher candidates earned degrees from the University of Alaska system and Alaska Pacific University, while the rest come from the Lower 48. According to a 2012 district report, the top three reasons teachers come to Alaska are a desire to live in the state, professional growth and personal factors. The district's reputation is fourth on the list.
Smith, the Clark Middle School teacher who is leaving the district, fits the profile. He graduated from St. Cloud University in Minnesota in 2008, choosing to take a job in Anchorage to "get in a place with mountains." He didn't pay that much attention to the salary and benefits, he said, but he found Anchorage School District's pay was comparable to Lower 48 school districts.
The problem for Smith is not as much financial as it with Anchorage public schools not embracing a holistic learning approach. Smith plans to spend a few years farming then attending grad school. Eventually, he hopes to start a nonprofit based around small-scale organic farming with the long-term goal of collaborating with public education, teaching low-income students farming techniques while fostering community development.
Placing too much emphasis on test scores and trying to keep up with national trends hurts the district, Smith said. Public education in America must evolve to work with more outside entities to produce well-rounded citizens, he said.
"Maybe Ed Graff will be able to implement those common core standards while moving the district forward," Smith said. "But the district is not open to uncommon ideas right now."
Dustin Madden decided against a career in education despite an affinity toward students. He taught a variety of subjects at an ASD school, but the district didn't pay his salary. Instead, Madden worked for Cook Inlet Tribal Council. The district provided Cook Inlet with classroom space to teach Alaska Native and American Indian students culturally relevant curriculum, Madden said.
He quit the job last year because of what he described as unsupportive administrators at Cook Inlet. Madden, who received his bachelor's in environmental science and policy from Stanford University and master's of education from the University of Alaska Southeast, now works for Fairbanks-based Cold Climate Housing Research Center, conducting policy research.
Applying as a teacher to the Anchorage School District wasn't attractive to Madden. The research job's pay is only slightly better, but it's intellectually more interesting, he said. He misses teaching, but the district's large class sizes deterred him from considering a career in the classroom.
"I was pretty happy teaching smaller groups of students, but with a class of 30-plus kids, especially for the intro to science classes, that never appealed to me," Madden said. "I'd have five very large classes. At that point, you're more of a drill sergeant than a teacher. You can't get a personal relationship with the students, and that's what I enjoyed about teaching."
Pool at maximum capacity
Classroom sizes are increasing, or at best staying the same size. District officials project the number of students per classroom will increase from an average of 28 now to 38 students by 2025 if budget shortfalls persist.
Ten more kids in the classroom each day means 10 more papers to grade every school night, Holleman said. The problem is multiplied as support in and outside of classrooms -- teacher assistants, counselors, library assistants -- is being cut.
These positions are shrinking from about 200 to 100. Over the next year, the district may slash more jobs, leaving a total support staff of about 50, said Anchorage School Board President Jeannie Mackie, when she introduced the district's 2013-2014 budget in January.
Donohue-Boyer said the first round of the budget process also called for cutting seven counselors. Some money was put back in during the second round, but there were grant issues to deal with. In all, six counselors will lose their jobs.
Last school year, the school board began cutting "directed programs," such as career guides and in-school suspension supervisors at the middle school level. This year, the board tried to stay away from similar cuts. Donohue-Boyer said he anticipates some teachers will be laid off because the district won't have the positions they're qualified for.
Todd worked in Robert Service High School's at-risk youth graduation program, which helped a significant number of troubled students graduate -- 37 in the previous academic year. Students worked with licensed graduation coaches. The program was cut despite tangible results, Todd said.
The removal of experimental programs coincides with the introduction of "canned curriculum," Holleman said. These prescribed teaching guides are meant to improve standardized test scores. Such stringent guidelines stifle creative teachers from using their own judgment in determining what's best for a particular student, he said.
Within two years, ASD teachers may be evaluated on those test scores. Bringing test scores into teacher evaluations adds to professional uncertainty, Holleman said.
"Teachers can wind up out of a job because their kids aren't testing well," Holleman said. "It causes people to look at other places, and look at other school districts that aren't doing those things and have good retirement programs, one that's not cutting their school budget every year, where classroom size is staying constant."
Graff disagrees, saying the district's pool of teachers are more than qualified to meet the standards.
"We feel strongly that the teachers we're bringing in are capable, are meeting our expectations and requirements, and have a strong idea of what high-quality instruction looks like," Graff said.
Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com