It wasn't that long ago that the tiny Chugach School District in Southcentral Alaska faced problems as fundamental as the three "R's."
As early as 1993, students scored rock bottom on national tests, teacher turnover was 55 percent and many parents were absent from their children's academic lives.
One student in 26 years had gone on to college and that was a child of a teacher.
"I think we were in a crisis in 1993. Kids couldn't read, write or do math. They didn't know what their choices were out there," said Superintendent Richard DeLorenzo.
DeLorenzo and other district officials and students appeared before a joint House and Senate committee on Wednesday to outline how they transformed an underachieving Bush district into a national education model.
The Chugach School District recently became among the first schools to win the national Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, normally reserved for businesses with high customer satisfaction.
The district replaced traditional report cards and grade levels with a standards-based curriculum. Students who mastered 10 areas of basic academic and career skills could graduate, whether they are as young as 14 or as old as 21.
"You have to show and prove that you know what you are doing," said Nathaniel Moore, a Whittier School student who accepted the award in Washington D.C.
Since reforms were put in place, California Achievement Test scores rose in reading, math and language arts. Chugach students who took the state High School Graduation Qualifying Examination topped the state average in all three subjects.
About 70 percent of students now take college entrance exams, and teachers receive performance pay bonuses for excelling in their jobs.
"We did whatever it took to be successful," DeLorenzo said.
The Chugach district led the formation of the Alaska Quality Schools Coalition, and 12 school districts in the state and Outside have mimicked its model.
The district received a $250,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Tom Vander Ark, of the foundation, said the district "holds great promise for small rural schools."
Chugach's 214 students are scattered throughout 22,000 square miles of mostly isolated Southcentral Alaska including much of Prince William Sound coastline. Many students attend through correspondents courses.
Lawmakers noted the contrast between Chugach and troubles at another rural school in Kivalina.
McQueen School, in the tiny Inupiat Eskimo village near Kotzebue, was shut down Feb. 27 for two weeks and five teachers transferred after they complained they were being threatened physically.
A team appointed by state Education Commissioner Shirley Holloway concluded that low educational expectations and a pervasive community tolerance for student misbehavior partially exacerbated the problem.
"What a treat to have this counterpoint to what happened in Kivalina," said Rep. Con Bunde, an Anchorage Republican.
Chugach schools suffered many of the same ills as those in Kivalina, DeLorenzo said. Alcoholism and unemployment were high, and parents weren't active in the school.
Chugach officials held a potluck in Whittier to lure some parents to a meeting to talk about planned reforms, said School Board President Doris V. Benson.
"We had to show them that what we were doing wasn't working and if we continue to do the same thing it's not going to work," DeLorenzo said. "When they saw the test scores start to go up, then they were encouraged."
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