JUNEAU — Alaska’s schools are a reflection of their communities, and “we’ve got some struggling communities,” the state’s new education commissioner said.
High rates of suicide and domestic violence plague Alaska, economic opportunities are limited, revolving largely around the natural resource development, and the education system is marred by lackluster graduation rates, truancy and drop-outs and a need for many graduates to take remedial courses when they reach college.
Michael Hanley said he doesn’t think there needs to be a paradigm shift to address the problems facing schools. But he believes decision-makers need to look at how things can be done a little differently.
He said that when it comes to education, the focus should be on needs, not dollars. Though that’s not to say Alaska should keep funding the education system as it has.
As a principal at Anchorage’s Kincaid Elementary, Hanley said he wanted to make sure children felt they were valued. He said teachers checked in with students identified as struggling for family, emotional, academic or other reasons. The community also contributed to a fund that was used to buy such things as school supplies for students who needed them or even a new coat for a student whose zipper had broken.
He said challenges facing the state’s system stem largely from the need to build healthy children. A child’s well-being must be addressed, he said, before he or she can become a healthy student — one with self-esteem, the ability to focus on learning, the chance to grasp opportunities provided.
“I bring to the table, really, a heart and a passion for kids and their success,” said Hanley, a longtime educator who left his job at Kincaid for his current post.
He agrees with Gov. Sean Parnell and some lawmakers, who question the wisdom in significantly increasing funding, as it’s currently doled out, if the system isn’t producing the kinds of results they want to see.
House and Senate lawmakers have introduced measures increasing the base-student allocation enough to keep up with inflation.
It’s a response to school districts, seeking more money to address rising costs. But a sponsor of one of the bills said the prospects are iffy for any increase passing.
Hanley, on the job just days when he spoke last week to The Associated Press in his Juneau office, said he wasn’t sure where he stood on an increase.
He said he looked forward to talking with Parnell on how best to focus the dollars education receives and how to ensure the system’s moving toward positive change.
Parnell has said he wants to prompt a transformation. He is pushing scholarships for students who complete a set curriculum at a certain achievement level — a program not necessarily targeted at “elite students” but one providing an opportunity for “kids who work hard,” Hanley said.
“Hopefully, we’re training kids to reach a much higher level of success,” he said.
Parnell’s also seeking an end to the social promotion of third-graders who lack the skills necessary to move on to fourth grade — a policy he’d like to see put in place by legislation or regulation.
Lawmakers have proposed a fund for vocational education programs, incentives for teachers and efforts aimed at pre-kindergarten and early childhood education.
There also is a proposal to repeal the high school exit exam. Hanley said he has mixed feelings on that. While it’s not perfect, he said it sets bare minimal standards to graduate, and said it would be hard to tout the need for greater accountability in schools if the state took away an accountability tool.
Hanley, 50, said he looks forward to learning more about the challenges and needs facing schools, particularly in rural Alaska, where he has not spent much time. He said he wants to work with districts, offer them resources and proven strategies, but he doesn’t want to impose one-size-fits-all mandates.
“I want to empower local communities to succeed,” he said.
One of the department’s biggest challenges, he said, will be ensuring that all students have access to the curriculum required to qualify for scholarships.
Hanley also intends to set benchmarks within the department and to take stock of which programs work, which need to be refocused and how best to target resources.
Hanley’s mother and brother both served in the state Legislature. He and his wife have two children, both attending college out of state, though their son, he said, talks about possibly returning to Alaska to finish his degree.
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