Assembly questions JSD on student achievement, budget plans

Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Juneau School District Board of Education gave the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly an overview of its $90 million budget Wednesday. The Assembly was more interested in hearing how the district is going to boost student achievement — especially if another $1 million might have to be cut from a spending plan already reduced this year by $4.1 million.

The Assembly, which is asked this year to contribute $26.3 million, asked what the district will do if the Alaska State Legislature won’t increase the Base Student Allocation — a sum the district hopes will rise before Legislators adjourn next month. Schools Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich said the district will find a way to trim $1 million more if additional state funds don’t come through. The revised budget would then go again before the Assembly.

JSD’s Director of Administrative Services David Means gave a review of projected enrollment numbers and led the Assembly through an overview of the budget the school board recently approved on a 4-3 vote.

There were few questions from Assembly members that had to do with the dollars and cents of what the district is doing, but more about what the district is doing with student achievement and how soon they’re going to see changes.

Gelbrich talked about the strategic plan, how it will help align teaching methods and what’s being taught to students. He also reiterated that the district has, for far too long, been able to predict which students are most likely to struggle and falter.

Mayor Bruce Botelho asked if that was a nationwide trend or something unique to Juneau. Gelbrich said it’s a trend nationwide that students who come from families with fewer resources don’t do as well as those who do. The trend also in Juneau is that Alaska Native students also tend to struggle.

“We have lots and lots of kids who go to some of the most prestigious universities in the nation, even internationally, but we also have far too many who don’t even graduate high school,” Gelbrich said.

Part of changing that process is the AVID program (Advancement Via Individual Determination) which targets students in the middle of the achievement spectrum.

Gelbrich said another part of the focus is on aligning teaching methods and providing more teacher support.

He said part of that comes through instruction coaches. Another part will be setting 10 core standards for each grade level that students need to learn and having an “acceptable band of practice” that teachers can choose from.

One of the things Gelbrich emphasized is that the results in student achievement have come from teachers and staff who are talented and dedicated, but things need to be done differently and more effectively.

Assemblyman Merrill Sanford asked when in the next 4-5 years will the community start seeing a changeover in the trends.

Gelbrich said the school board expects data to show a change as early as this year, but if not this year, then next.

“Part of why I came to Juneau, I don’t have to work,” Gelbrich explained. “I need to be here professionally because I believe that here, we can actually do it. We can deliver on the promise of what public education is supposed to be.”

Assembly member David Stone said most students won’t go to college and asked about the emphasis on career/vocational tech options in the district.

School board member Ed Flanigan said the district could always offer more, and already students at all three high schools have an array of options in career/vocational tech options. He said the reason the district can offer as much as it does is because of state grants. Flanigan said he would like to see more early college options.

Assembly member Karen Crane asked what the district is doing from an elementary school level to help kids make it to graduation.

Gelbrich said it isn’t solely an issue of early years in school, it starts before then. There are preschool options as part of a state grant and the district does offer special needs preschool. Gelbrich said the district also started a new program this year called JumpStart that helps young, struggling students.

“We have two schools piloting an all-day kindergarten program,” Gelbrich said. “We also have a couple of places where, Auke Bay is an example, where some of the students come early so the class size is very small for a block of time. Some of the kids come later and stay later. We’re seeing really positive results from that as well. It starts at birth. We’re looking for ways to build that.”

Botelho asked how the district is going to go forward with increasing standards and student achievement given a public pushback to proposed graduation requirements.

Gelbrich said there won’t be total alignment. He said the assumption most people have is that they’re gearing students to a college track. He said the assumption people should have is that they expect students to achieve some kind of secondary learning — whether it be a 4-year university degree, trade school or the military.

Gelbrich said that while there was a “fair amount of vocal resistance” there also was a lot of written comments in support of higher standards.

Board member Mark Choate said students will achieve at the level of expectations. He said if they keep the bar low, students will continue performing at that level. If standards are set high, students will also be there.

School board members were given the opportunity to express thoughts or ask questions of the Assembly. Most cited optimism, excitement and hope for the future of changes to come in the district from what they see in the superintendent, and what they see in students in programs like CARES, the credit recovery program.

The school board will take a look at updating the budget once the Legislature either acts — or doesn’t — on school funding by April 18 and take action on the budget from there.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at

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