About a hundred people seeking to transform Alaska's public schools in the face of high rates of truancy, low standardized test scores and high teacher turnover began their efforts Thursday as part of Gov. Bill Walker's "Alaska's Education Challenge."
"If we do this right, folks, we could have the best schools in the world," Sue Hull, first vice-chair of the State Board of Education, told the group. "Please, please help us transform our system."
The Alaska educators, lawmakers, tribal representatives, parents and students were split into five committees, each directed to develop recommendations by November for board priorities: student learning, educator excellence, modernization and finance, tribal and community ownership, and safety and well being.
Hull encouraged committee members at their first meeting Thursday to think of "big ideas and transformative ideas" in the coming months.
"Without that, we're not going to be able to close the chronic and debilitating achievement gaps that exist in our state. And equally important, we're not going to be able to prepare kids for a future in a world that is rapidly changing," she said. "We can no longer continue to educate our kids for the past — we have to think about the future."
Brian Laurent, data management supervisor at the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, provided the group with grim statistics about the state's education system.
One in four Alaska students were considered "chronically absent" last year, missing at least 10 percent of school, he said. This school year, one in every 10 teachers was a new hire, he said.
In 2015-16, the four-year graduation rate was 76 percent, below the national average. The graduation rates for students learning English and students with disabilities were lower, around 54 percent, Laurent said.
Education Commissioner Michael Johnson told the group that Alaska students' scores on national math and reading standardized tests in 2015 lagged far behind those in other states.
He said the dismal education data should lead to a feeling of dissatisfaction, a feeling that motivates change but "in no way implies that other folks have not tried and accomplished a whole lot." While Alaska's education system has "come a long way," Johnson said, "we're not there yet."
"If you are in this room and you would be satisfied if our system of public education would continue functioning as it is right now, then this is not the meeting for you," he said. "We must no longer be content with the results that we are getting statewide. We must no longer be willing to rank toward the bottom of our country."
Alaska last updated its education plan in 2012, said Eric Fry, education department spokesman. Fry said Alaska's Education Challenge builds on the State Board of Education's strategic planning.
As part of the challenge, the five committees will send their final reform recommendations to the board by Nov. 1. The board will deliver a report to the governor and Legislature in December, according to a state timeline.