Outside the classroom, school staff and volunteers motivate Alaska students

SPONSORED: Noon duties. Counselors. Principals. Teachers aren’t the only ones making a difference in Alaska’s schools. Meet some of the educational allies who touch students’ lives every day.

SPONSORED: For more than 20 years, BP has been recognizing Alaska's exceptional teachers through the BP Teachers of Excellence program. Since 1995, the company has honored more than 750 educators for their dedication to teaching and inspiring students. In 2017, BP introduced the Educational Allies award, which celebrates the unsung heroes in Alaska's schools, including principals, teaching assistants, volunteers and others who are shaping Alaska's next generation. Nominations for this year's awards are open until Feb. 1.

Each morning, students are greeted by two familiar faces as they walk through the front doors of Ocean View Elementary School. One belongs to Principal Dayna Durr. The other, crossed with a wide smile, is that of Elementary Building Plant Operator Edward Scott — or "Mr. Ed," as he's been called by generations of students, parents and teachers.

The morning ritual is just the start of a long day for Mr. Ed, but it's a tradition he savors.

"My favorite part of the day is telling them to have a great day," he said.

While teachers make their impact in the classroom, there are thousands of people like Mr. Ed — administrators, facilities staff, playground supervisors, cafeteria workers, volunteers and more — who make a positive difference in the lives of Alaska's students. Some are trained educators, but many are motivated to help students in ways that have little to do with reading, writing or arithmetic.

For Mr. Ed, the desire to help students is rooted in his own experiences as a child. Raised by a hardworking single mother after his father passed away, he knows firsthand that small children can have big problems. That's why he finds himself drawn especially to kids who might need a little extra support from a positive role model.

"I knew that some kids are tough — they have tough days," Mr. Ed said. "They have a lot going on at home that people really don't see. I was one of those students."

Inspired by his mother, Mr. Ed sought a career where he could make a difference. That landed him at Ocean View, where he's been a part of the school community for 30 years.

"Ocean View is their safe place," he said of the students (or, as he calls them, "my kids"). "When they see me in the building, I want them to see a safe haven."

It's not just teachers and principals, he added, who can be part of creating that safe haven. Every member of the school community plays a role. Mr. Ed's job responsibilities take him all over the school, and he tries to spend as much of his day as possible interacting with students, visiting classrooms to read to them, or recruiting assistants to help with cleanup and other tasks.

Mr. Ed said he has always looked up to former ASD Superintendent Carol Comeau, who began her career in schools as a noon duty on the playground at Ocean View — the very same school where he has been greeting students every morning for 30 years.

"Her story inspired me so much," he said of Comeau. "She was very positive, always. That's who I wanted to be like."

Cultivating kindness

Anyone looking for another role model who brings a positive attitude into Alaska schools needs to look no further than Karl Kircher. Along with Mr. Ed, Kircher was among a group honored by BP in 2017 as the inaugural class of "Educational Allies," a new annual award that recognizes the unsung heroes of Alaska schools alongside the BP Teachers of Excellence.

Kircher is principal of — and head cheerleader for — Mountain View Elementary, Kenai's Neighborhood School. (Part of representing Mountain View, Kircher will tell you, is making sure no one refers to it without adding the "Kenai's Neighborhood School" bit. It's not just their brand, he said — it's their commitment to the community.)

"I'm a ruthless promoter for our school," Kircher said. "This school is awesome. I tell everybody I can about the great things that are going on here."

Before becoming principal, Kircher served as Mountain View's assistant principal. During his time in that role, he was asked to find a program to help foster a positive school culture.

"I went about asking our teachers, 'Hey, what do you think our kids need? What do you need? What does the school need to succeed?'" he said. "Basically it came down to: When people are in conflict, they can't learn. Our No. 1 need was a way to positively respond to conflict."

Supported by Kircher, the staff developed an original curriculum to teach positive responses to conflict. It's now taught to all students from kindergarten through fifth grade. That laid the groundwork for the school's culture of kindness.

"Kindness just kind of organically became our go-to rule," Kircher said. "Respect can be kind of passive. Kindness takes action."

Along with kindness came a commitment to community service. Among other efforts, Mountain View students and teachers have served meals, performed for veterans' groups, and volunteered at the local senior center.

"If you're connected to your community, you're feeling good about yourself (and) you're doing positive things, you're going to do well in school because you're feeling part of something bigger," Kircher said.

He's quick to deflect credit for students' community involvement, the conflict resolution program and anything else good happening at Mountain View to the rest of the school staff. They took the idea of kindness and ran with it, he said.

"I just feel like my job is to be in a supporting role to make sure that that continues," Kircher said. "When they come up with a good idea, that's my job to make it happen. They're in the classroom busting it out every day, and I'm the one with a little bit of extra time. I can make those calls. I can look at the budget and say, 'Yeah, you can do it.'"

Maybe it's his background. Among other pre-teaching careers, Kircher used to skipper a commercial fishing vessel.

"I see my role as getting everybody to work together as a crew," he said.

A legacy of encouragement

That's a sentiment shared by Mr. Ed, who said he's been fortunate to work with administrators who understand that teamwork starts at the top. He recalled how encouraging it was to see a former Ocean View principal jumping in to help with maintenance tasks.

"She'd be dressed up like she's going to church, and she'd be down there mopping the hallway," he said, laughing.

Like Kircher, Mr. Ed has found that a positive school culture makes students want to give back to their school — and their contributions, in turn, help perpetuate that supportive culture.

"Kids just love to help out," he said.

Every day, Ocean View students line up to offer their assistance with cafeteria cleanup and other tasks around the school. At Ocean View, kindergarteners have their own separate lunchroom, and Mr. Ed talked about a group of older boys who have taken personal ownership of helping tidy the room each day.

"They won't miss school because they have to clean up the kindergarten cafeteria," he said, adding that he makes it clear the time they spend with him each day is a privilege that has to be earned. "They've got to have their homework done. If they don't have their homework done, they don't have that privilege for the day."

Knowing that he can motivate students to succeed is its own motivation for Mr. Ed. On the rare day when he's feeling down or discouraged, he said he simply has to look at the bulletin board in his office, which is hung thick with notes from current and former Ocean View students.

"It's like your confirmation that day: This is what you're supposed to be doing in life," he said. "Last week this parent told me, 'My kid still talks about you. He's in the Air Force now.'"

This story is sponsored by BP, celebrating the teachers and other unsung heroes who bring a world of possibilities into the classroom.

This article was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with BP. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.