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We need a plan to help Anchorage students catch up

  • Author: Mike Bronson, Rev. William Greene
  • Updated: March 21
  • Published March 21

The Anchorage School District Education Center in Anchorage, on Sept. 25, 2013. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Maybe like you, we in the NAACP are wondering why Anchorage schoolchildren aren't catching up in reading and math.

We're big fans of public schools. Teachers and principals are our heroes. We are grateful for the Anchorage School Board members' dedication. We admire Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop's drive.

However, after visiting 11 schools in Anchorage we're getting concerned. We learned tens of thousands of students are behind and they are unlikely to ever catch up because there is no plan to get them to grade level in those subjects.

We asked the school board, legislators, the education commissioners, the state Board of Education and even the governor about it.

They all know kids are falling short in reading and math. The schools' staffs even know the techniques for catching them up. Legislators have some ideas too.  However, none of them has a vision to do things very differently on the big scale necessary to fulfill this goal.

Low proficiency

In the past, Alaska students' reading and math skills have ranked low among other states. Our fourth- and eighth-graders take a national test every two years and score near the bottom of the barrel.

It's not just brown, poor or rural kids. The richer, white or city kids don't achieve either.

The state Department of Education reported the same low performance after two-thirds of third- to 10th-graders scored below the new state standards in English and math in 2015. Here in Anchorage, 63 percent of the student test-takers did not meet standards.

If that rate were applied to the 48,000 ASD students, about 30,000 Anchorage kids are likely behind in reading and math. Many are way behind.

For example, only 15 percent or less of some middle schools' eighth-graders meet the state math standards. Many kids enter seventh grade without mastery of multiplication tables, normally a fourth-grade skill.

Students are expected to attend classes of 27, without aides or tutoring. As a result, Anchorage can expect more than 2,000 students every year to age out of high school with bad reading and math capabilities.

What the schools know

To their credit the superintendent and board members know all about student performance. They measure it and maintain goals to help overcome the low academic achievement.

They are working toward 90 percent of students meeting reading and math state standards, and 90 percent of high school students graduating, both by the year 2020.

Also to its credit the school board hired national experts to analyze what it could do differently to reach those academic goals.

Picus Odden consultants looked at improved schools elsewhere in the country and did reality checks with Anchorage schools' own challenges and success stories. For example, ASD's own data show in elementary schools about 10,000 kids are behind on reading skills. With few exceptions those kids do not get extra help and will never catch up.

However, there are some bright spots. One is an expert reading teacher who takes 15 percent of Chinook Elementary School's poor readers per year, 10 at a time for six weeks, for intensive remedial reading instruction.

Their scores jumped dramatically to rank among their regular classmates. Some other schools make similar efforts.

Based on that kind of evidence the national consultant told the school board last year 100 of its schools needed hundreds more teachers, and better-trained educators, if thousands of students were to catch up and reliably advance each year.

Plan needed for action

Nevertheless, the board put aside most of its experts' solutions and instead decided to eliminate 150 teachers in 2016 and 2017.

Every single board member opted last month to eliminate 100 instructors. In addition, the board voted to provide about half the classroom supplies and textbooks its expert recommended based on successful schools Outside.

Reducing teachers and books protects the savings accounts of the school district and the state.

Is the school board coming up short? Yes, if you consider the board has no vision for the heavy lift needed to boost 24,000 kids to grade-level any time soon.

The Legislature, however, is driving the bus. It owns the schools, their results and controls their budgets. The state is required to provide public schools by the Alaska Constitution.

In Moore v. Alaska, the court ruled that the Legislature must make sure public schools provide meaningful opportunities for students to meet state standards. From what we've seen, the Legislature is coming up short, whether measured as teaching effort, or as academic gains.

In one approach, the school board could present the Legislature a plan for how tens of thousands of students can rise to grade level. That may require organizing parent groups, churches and businesses, who've asked to help.

That may mean insisting the University of Alaska and teachers unions provide many more skilled remedial teachers, as some recommend.

That may mean putting those new teachers into hundreds of Anchorage classrooms to expand the bright spots, like the experts say. That way both the school board and Legislature might provide the level of education the law requires from them.

Mike Bronson of Spenard and the Rev. William Greene, pastor of Eagle River Missionary Baptist Church, volunteer with the Anchorage branch of the NAACP.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com. 

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