Time to pull together on schools

The following editorial ran in the Anchorage Daily News on Oct. 15:

Andrew Halcro, president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, Michele Brown, president of United Way, and Hedy Eischeid of the National Education Association-Alaska, the teachers union pitched an ambitious education project on Tuesday.

Rather than argue about funding and student base allocations, the three said the chamber, the United Way, teachers and other partners want to first unite over Alaska’s education needs are and how best to meet them.

What do we want our schools to accomplish? What do we expect our students to know, how do we expect them to deal with the world? Once they leave high school, do we want them ready to work, ready for college or other post-secondary education, capable of critical thinking? What exactly do those mean?

Once that’s settled, then we can talk about money.

Right off the top, they’re doing three things right.

First, the group has put together a survey of teachers in the state to find out what’s going on in the schools, what teachers face and how they feel about, and what teachers feel they need to do their jobs better. Halcro said it’s an exhaustive survey, with questions tailored to different parts of the state. He hopes to have a draft report in December, and solid data to take to the Legislature in January.

Second, the idea is pull the entire community and state together in working on education — without looking for enemies or scapegoats for failure. Halcro noted that some people are surprised to see collaboration between the chamber and the teachers union. His reply is why wouldn’t business owners want to work with teachers and the rest of the school district? That’s how we’ll improve schools for our kids — and create a better work force and a healthier community.

Third, this is a long-haul effort, as it must be. Halcro, Brown and Eischeid didn’t promise immediate results. They know better. As Brown said, there’s both rigor and joy in this work. The rigor lies in the discipline to stay dedicated and the need to address complexity. School success depends on many things often beyond a teacher’s control — parents and home life, after-school activities, community attitudes, money and other resources. And in Anchorage, for example, in a generation the student population has changed from mostly white to mostly minority, with almost 100 languages spoken. We’re a city of immigrants - and a growing city of Alaska Natives.

And the joy? That’s self-evident to anyone who has ever seen a youngster come to life in school.

Work on all those fronts takes time and cooperation. As Halcro said, so much happens outside the school walls that can enhance or hobble learning. Brown pointed out that a pilot program of counseling and mentoring at Lake Hood and Susitna elementary schools has markedly improved attendance, and to a lesser extent, academic achievement. But doors are opening for young students who might never otherwise seen the opportunities before them.

Halcro, Brown and Eischeid are united in their belief that our public schools, for all the well-publicized woes, do magnificent work every day. Halcro pointed out that the severest critics of our public schools are those who do not have children in them; most parents who do give the schools good marks. That should get more attention, because that daily success gives us faith that we can extend it to more of our students. A 90 percent graduation rate by 2020 isn’t fantasy — not if we’re pulling together.

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