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Catherine Walker was honored at the White House. But she won't be teaching at Romig Middle School anymore.

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: May 22
  • Published May 22

Romig Middle School science teacher Catherine Walker leads a group of seventh-graders in dissection of a cow eyeball last week. Walker, a nationally recognized teacher, is being transferred to Dimond High School. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Pulled from her Friday afternoon science class, Catherine Walker walked to the office at Romig Middle School in tears, knowing why she had been called down. After 11 years, her job was gone.

Walker tried to pull herself together before returning to her students. They could tell something was wrong, but she had been ordered not to tell them.

Yet her students were the ones with the most to lose. Walker, an elite professional and national award winner, will have a job next year at a different school. But Romig will not replace her. Her students will lose a teacher good enough to have been invited to the White House.

All over the Anchorage School District, the state's budget crisis is biting into children's futures. Next year, students will have larger classes with fewer excellent teachers.

At Steller Secondary I tracked down Jean Poulsen on Friday to thank her, bringing my adult son with me. Poulsen, who worked in design before teaching, inspired him as a student years ago, and now he has his own career in architecture.

My younger daughter is still at Steller and loves Poulsen's art classes. She wants to be an artist. But with Poulsen retiring and not being replaced, Steller won't have an art teacher anymore.

Anchorage teachers play musical chairs every year as student numbers change. The newest teachers get laid off and hope for rehire. Experienced teachers transfer into vacant positions.

But with the district cutting 99 positions in a first round of cuts, there weren't enough places for everyone to land. Poulsen pulled the trigger on her retirement now partly so a younger teacher wouldn't have to be fired.

Ashley Gunnill is one of those first-year teachers. Her new career is stuttering.

At 28, Gunnill finally found what she most enjoys doing. She is finishing her first year at the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School. For next year, she had a job offer at Klatt Elementary. But that may go away.

To become a teacher, Gunnill earned a four-year degree at the University of Wisconsin and a master's degree at the University of Alaska Southeast. She worked as a teaching assistant and a substitute.

After all that work, she feels like she hasn't launched yet.

"I'm going to hope that I get picked up, I'm going to hope I have my classroom at Klatt, but if I don't, I have a serving background. I served for five years at Orso," she said.

If the Alaska Senate's proposal gets through the Legislature, with budget cuts focused mainly on schools and the University of Alaska, hundreds more teachers will be missing from Anchorage schools in the fall. Unable to fulfill their promises to cut waste, the senators' reductions come mostly from educator jobs.

For students at Romig, that means one less science teacher. And the teacher they are losing is one of the best.

Walker, the award-winning Romig Middle School science teacher, works with seventh-graders to dissect a cow’s eye. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Walker intended to be a doctor or a scientist and got a premed degree from Brandeis University in Massachusetts. She had seen how challenging her mother's job was as a teacher in Eagle River and didn't want to follow that path.

But while serving in the Peace Corps in Mali, she found her calling. She had gone there to build a schoolhouse, but the two years she spent in a mud-brick classroom with students ages 3 to 15 changed her direction in life.

At Romig, where her husband's classroom was right next door, Walker taught students near the top and the bottom of the academic scale. Some 60 percent of her students live in poverty, as defined by a government food program.

She engages struggling students with labs, such as a cow eyeball dissection she set up with doctors from Makar Eyecare.

"They feel like they can do it, even if they can't read and write. They can do the hands-on part," she said. "They tend to pull it together for the more dangerous things. They are safer with scalpels than scissors."

A few years ago, Walker's success with that wide ability range of students got her principal's attention. He nominated her for the Presidential Award for Mathematics and Science Teaching, a process that included filming her with students.

She won in 2015 and traveled to the White House (although the president was late to the ceremony, so she didn't get to shake his hand). She also earned board certification as a biology teacher, which she said was an even more rigorous process.

Next year, she will be teaching at Dimond High School. Her students at Romig will be redistributed among the remaining science teachers, putting them in larger classes with less teacher interaction.

Walker said National Science Foundation standards for safe class sizes when doing labs with middle school students will be difficult to attain with the new student-teacher ratios.

We're slowly crushing our schools.

Some legislators and their supporters believe that turning the screws tighter on budgets squeezes out excess and no one really suffers. But years of flat funding has actually squeezed education for students, a gradual diminishment we pay for over time.

Next year, Walker said, the highly successful debate program at Romig is going away so that teacher can take more daily classes of social studies. Maybe debate at Romig would have turned a kid from Spenard into a judge someday.

My son might not have sought his architecture degree without Jean Poulsen.

A student might not become a doctor without Catherine Walker there to show her the inside of an eyeball.

We don't know yet how Ashley Gunnill can inspire students. And we won't know as long as she is waiting tables.

This is the real price of living in a state with no income or sales tax, where we buy whatever level of education oil revenue and state savings accounts can give us. We save money and waste human potential.

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(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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