Alaska is at the bottom of the class when it comes to sending students to college, and is the worst of the worst among all of the states at getting poor children to pursue higher education.
Only 30 percent of the state's high school students go on to college, while only 7.9 percent from low income homes make the jump, according to data from Alaska's Commission on Postsecondary Education. The national average for college-bound students from poor homes is 25.7 percent. How best to prepare this group of students for not only graduating from high school but also having the skills and desire to push their education even further is a problem being attacked on multiple fronts, including a brand new financial incentive.
But with rural schools struggling just to get kids to come to class and, in the smallest communities, with class size -- fewer students mean less money -- Alaska's neediest students and the schools they attend may face more obstacles than others to reap the program's rewards.
Gov. Sean Parnell last May signed into law a merit-based scholarship program that rewards with scholarships high school students who successfully take on a more rigorous course load, get decent grades and perform well on college entrance exams. The award program, known as "The Alaska Performance Scholarship," is meant to "improve graduation rates and make higher education more affordable for Alaska's families," according to the governor's website.
Parnell hopes the program will help pursue "transformative change" in Alaska's schools, while bridging the gap between high school and college. But as his administration and the Legislature work to implement the program and find money to fund it long term, some lawmakers are concerned it will disproportionately favor big city kids over students in smaller, more remote communities.
"I think that is undeniable," said Rep. Chris Tuck, an Anchorage Democrat and former school board member who was part of the Legislature's scholarship funding task force. "The merit-based scholarship is going to create transformation pressure on Alaska's K-12 system, and more specifically, in rural Alaska."
In pushing for the program -- which he has repeatedly called a "top priority" for his administration -- Parnell admitted that not all schools are prepared to teach on-site the more difficult curriculum. But schools will get better if "parents demand improvements" and fight for their child's right to learn at a higher level, he told the Alaska Native Brotherhood last March.
Yet desire and demand for classes may not be enough to make the classes available, and the realities of life in rural Alaska are likely to impact Alaska Native students most, said Dr. Norm Eck, superintendent of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District headquartered in Kotzebue.
"We have to provide equal opportunity to our Alaska Native students. Right now we don't," he said.
The scholarships are available to Alaska students pursuing a heavier course-load than what is currently required for graduation. Students must complete four years each of math, language, science and social studies to qualify. Depending on a student's grades and other achievements the scholarship could provide between $2,378 and $4,755 per year toward tuition at in-state colleges or qualified career training programs. The goal is to increase the education level and employability of Alaska's up-and-coming workforce.
"Our families and economic future depend on it," Parnell said during the bill-signing event, held at a middle school in Anchorage.
"If you are willing to grab it, if you are willing to take it, if you are willing to work hard and earn it, you can fly," he told the seventh and eighth grade students in the crowd. "We believe that this not only will change opportunities for you and your families, but it will change Alaska forever."
Rural Alaska's education equation
On Thursday, nearly 10 months after the scholarship was signed into law, officials with the state's Education and Labor departments briefed the House Finance and Education committees on what's being done to ensure Alaska's neediest students aren't being left behind. "We have parts of the state that won't get this," remarked Anchorage Democratic Rep. Sharon Cissna, who added that access to financial aid plays a big part in whether students successfully make it to and through college.
Newly elected Rep. Alan Dick, a Republican from Lime Village, expressed similar concerns about whether the villages in his region of Northwest Alaska would be able to successfully deliver the more challenging curriculum.
Often, small schools have fewer teachers and a harder time finding "highly qualified teachers," a requirement built into the nation's No Child Left Behind Act. Under the law, teachers must have a bachelor's degree in their core subjects, be state certified and knowledgeable in the subjects they teach. By 2005, the U.S. Department of Education was already keenly aware that low-income students who have strong math skills by the eighth grade are 10 times more likely than their peers to finish college. It knew that less than half of middle school and high school math teachers never had a math emphasis in college. And it knew that "one of the greatest challenges is the need to put good teachers in underperforming schools and high poverty communities."
But No Child Left Behind isn't working for rural schools, where a single teacher often covers every subject, across multiple grade levels. A single teacher "highly qualified" in all areas isn't realistic. The policy is onerous enough that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is pushing to abandon the "one size fits all" mandates under NCLB. Instead of demanding "highly qualified" teachers, he has recently said the nation should be more concerned with developing and rewarding "highly effective" teachers.
Complicating matters, many rural schools also struggle with routine attendance, academic performance and graduation rates.
During the 2008-2009 school year, 126 of Alaska's high schools had less than 30 students, said Tuck, who called the statistics "tell-all." Of those, 72 were high schools in rural Alaska with 10 or fewer students. Eck added that 110 of the small rural schools are off the road system, and that most of the state's rural students in small schools are Alaska Native.
Alaska Performance Scholarship modeled on other successes
It's an economic challenge to keep large schools heated and staffed when there are so few students; increasing academic standards would add another layer of difficulty, Eck said. It's not that students don't have a constitutional right to equal education but figuring out how to get the job done may require doing things differently.
The state has said all schools unable to offer on-site courses that satisfy the merit scholarship program's requirements will be able to
to those classes through either virtual or distance learning. Still, a general lack of broadband infrastructure in rural Alaska may make that goal challenging to fully execute.
Changes "won't happen overnight," Eddy Jeans, an education policy coordinator with the Department of Education and Early Development, told lawmakers, assuring them that education officials did not just "make up" the scholarship program.
"Ratcheting up" academic rigor takes time, he said.
Alaska's Performance Scholarship program is modeled after programs in Louisiana and Wyoming. Wyoming's program is called the Hathaway Scholarships. Louisiana's program is the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. It operates on about $140 million annually and helps about 500,000 students each year. According to Jeans, it's been a success, and has lowered the number of remedial courses that state universities need to offer in order to bring new college students up to speed academically.
Parnell had initially sought $400 million to fund Alaska's scholarship program at a sustainable level -- the program is funded for its inaugural two years with more than $8 million -- and the Legislature is currently examining future funding amounts and methods.
School districts in Alaska are already trying to figure out how to connect their students with the tougher curriculum.
"The ability to deliver all those different courses is not possible," Dr. Eck said of the 10 communities his school district covers. Three of the schools have only one teacher, another three have only two teachers and a few others have only a handful of teachers. Only Kotzebue, the largest community in Eck's Northwest Arctic School District, is large enough to offer course requirements to meet the scholarship's demands.
"In the smaller schools it's a lot tougher. We've been trying to develop an adequate distance learning program but we don't have adequate bandwidth," he said, adding that he expects it will be several years before adequate bandwidth for distance learning is in place.
Some correspondence courses are available but Eck notes that they require self-motivated students who can largely work on their own. Most students need student-to-student and teacher-to-student interaction to be successful, he said. In an ideal world students could attend virtual classes via real-time video links, with a teacher or aide nearby to help them with their coursework.
Consider, he said, the village of Deering, Alaska, where about two dozen students average high test scores with only one teacher. Expecting a single teacher to be "highly qualified" across all disciplines is too much, he said. But if distance learning could happen there, with a teacher standing by to help, it might work.
Eck isn't complaining about the scholarship program; it's a good mark for students to aim for, he said. But figuring out how best to help students get there is proving to be a challenge. And it's not as simple as having families simply move to a bigger community with a better school.
In large cities on the road system, options exist that students don't have in the more isolated communities. Vocational, alternative schools and charter schools are easy to get to if for some reason the main high school isn't working out.
"Our rural students don't have that opportunity to do that," Eck said.
Mindful that there needs to be transition time for students to acquire qualifying classes for the new merit scholarships (the first awards will go to students entering college or career training this fall), the state is taking steps to ease the growing pains that will come with pushing students to push themselves. It will phase in course requirements for 2011 and 2012 high school graduates, allow them to retroactively apply relevant coursework taken up to a year after high school, and is working with districts to help them expand correspondence and other distance learning options.
Programs are also in place to offer college and career counseling to low income and minority students, and existing financial aid for low-income college students continues to be available.
Still, Superintendent Eck believes even more options need to be considered to help ensure all of Alaska's students get a fair shot at rigorous academic excellence and the financial rewards that come with it.
"We think there is a real need for regional, residential high schools," he said.
That could mean students come in for one- or two-week, subject-specific, intensive courses. Or it could mean that Kotzebue builds a dormitory to offer a boarding school option closer to home than Galena in the Interior or Mount Edgecumbe in Sitka. Losing students to a regional hub would still hurt schools in the small communities, but at least education dollars wouldn't be lost altogether within the district.
With about 35 of the Northwest Arctic School District's 1,750 students attending school in Galena, and another 11 or so going to Mount Edgecumbe -- at a general cost of about $20,000 per student -- Eck says the district is losing out on about $900,000 a year, money that would go a long way to helping the district develop the capacity to offer the higher level courses.
The way things are now, Eck estimates more than half of the students in his region won't soon be able to work toward earning one of Alaska's merit-based scholarships because of school isolation and a lack of teaching capacity.
"We have to provide the opportunity to learn for the kids who want and need to take advantage of that," Eck said. "There are no easy answers."
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com