My Turn: Bright future ahead for Alaska's students

As the graduation season comes to a close in Alaska, I want to again congratulate the high school classes of 2014 and express appreciation to all students, parents and educators who create great schools.


Across Alaska, schools are shaping our children’s future and ensuring it remains bright. In Anchorage, Aurora Elementary School was one of 286 nationwide honored as a National Blue Ribbon School. Aurora serves 390 students at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Half of Aurora’s students are from economically disadvantaged families. As a school on a military base, its student transiency is about 34 percent. Yet, 92 out of 100 of Aurora students scored proficient or advanced on reading, writing, and math tests. Aurora’s attendance rate approached 96 percent.

That only happens when parents, students and teachers work together to achieve shared goals. More Alaskans are graduating – about three-quarters within five years of starting high school. We are progressing toward our 90 percent graduation goal, with a more than 10 percent increase in the past eight years.

Throughout Alaska, schools are providing more innovative educational choices for families. When students are interested in their courses, they succeed. With engineering academies on the Kenai Peninsula, maritime apprenticeships in Ketchikan and agricultural science in Copper River, Alaska’s schools create pathways to careers.

Rural school districts are expanding residential programs offered to students from villages. Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka educates students from more than 100 villages. More than three-quarters of its graduates are accepted into college or a career-training program.

Across the state, schools have stepped up to offer challenging courses so students can earn Alaska Performance Scholarships, and their hard work is paying off. Each year, about one-third of high school graduates meet the scholarship’s rigorous eligibility standards. Over the years, more of the eligible students have earned the highest award level — up to $4,755 per year — even as course requirements increased.

When we created the Alaska Performance Scholarship, I knew students would rise to the challenge. And they have. More than $16 million has been paid out in scholarships earned by the first three classes of graduates.

The academic results are remarkable. Alaska Performance Scholars need much less remediation in college than do non-scholarship students. Students who are ready for college-level courses or job training are more likely to earn degrees and certificates.

Alaska’s students and educators have also distinguished themselves academically. Sawyer Birnbaum of West Anchorage High School and Sijo Smith of Chugiak High School were honored as U.S. Presidential Scholars. Sawyer named Janice Strickland as his most influential teacher; Sijo named Ron Lange.

Students from Chevak, Ketchikan and Fairbanks received full-ride Gates Millennium Scholarships. Congratulations to Martina Brown of Ketchikan High School; Kyla Fermoyle and Mary Pingayak, both of Chevak School; and William Wood of West Valley High School in Fairbanks.

John Walsworth of Homer and Shanelle Afcan of Marshall are Alaska’s representatives to the prestigious and competitive U.S. Senate Youth Program.

Rebecca Himschoot of Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School in Sitka and Amy Laufer of Kasuun Elementary School in Anchorage won the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

Molly Yerkes, the principal at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School in Juneau, was surprised with a prestigious $25,000 Milken Educator Award at a school-wide assembly last fall.

My administration will continue building pathways to more education and better paying jobs.

In the past session, the Legislature approved my comprehensive Alaska’s Education Opportunity Act. Besides significantly increasing funding for traditional public schools, we’ve encouraged and funded more choices in public schools. We’ve opened more opportunities for charter schools, residential schools, correspondence and home schools, and the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program; provided more access to career training; repealed unnecessary testing; and established the Digital Teaching Initiative.

The Digital Teaching Initiative removes obstacles to interactive distance courses by opening up video teaching possibilities. High school and middle school students will access a more diverse array of courses – including those qualifying them for the Alaska Performance Scholarship – presented by highly capable teachers whose influence will now reach beyond their own classroom.

Our young people are on track for more educational opportunity in Alaska. With more choices and funding, we are empowering the next generation to succeed in the vibrant future that is Alaska’s promise.

• Sean Parnell is the governor of Alaska.


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