Communities, state, schools must work together for education

Posted: Sunday, June 27, 2010

The recipe for a successful system of public education is community engagement in the schools, emotionally and physically safe schools where students feel they belong, and quality schools that prepare students for 21st century careers and post-secondary education.

Those are the guiding principles of the Alaska Education Plan, created by hundred of Alaskans in November 2008.

We all know that some schools are struggling to achieve student proficiency in reading, writing, and math - the core subjects that are the basis for critical thinking and problem-solving in daily life and on the job. In some schools the percentage of proficient students is in the low double digits. It has been this way for years.

When I travel around the state, whether I am in a village or a city, kids tell me of their dreams for the future. Children rely on adults to help them achieve their dreams. We must not have a lesser vision for children than they have for themselves.

The state has a responsibility to help struggling schools build their capacity to improve student achievement. Our task is to balance local control with state support. Success depends on the ability of the state, schools and communities to work collaboratively.

The Alaska Department of Education & Early Development has developed, and is continually refining, the State System of Support, which is directed by the deputy commissioner. The Legislature has provided funds for increased support. An independent organization gives us feedback from school districts about our interventions.

The State System of Support provides tiers of services to school districts based on their need. All districts have access to training in the best practices of effective schools. Districts that are not making sufficient student progress are provided with coaches, who are experienced Alaska educators, to help them fulfill their improvement plans.

The state intervenes more rigorously and explicitly in districts that have the greatest need. The state strives to intervene to the least degree necessary to set struggling schools on a positive track.

Here are some of the keys to the State System of Support: Schools make sure their curriculum and instruction aligns with the state's academic standards. Principals are instructional leaders. The school district's in-school training opportunities for teachers are focused on the school's needs. Educators look at assessment data, their classroom observations and their own assignments - and they collaboratively decide what each student needs.

Specialists in academic content work directly with teachers, observing them in the classroom, modeling good instructional strategies, providing feedback to teachers on lessons, and ensuring that the state's content standards are taught.

Coaches work with school boards, principals and the superintendent to make sure the right conditions are in place to implement the district's improvement plan, and they coordinate state support. Coaches and mentors work with new principals and teachers.

Intervention also includes developing early childhood learning programs, implementing sound reading programs, and providing parent, community and cultural understanding to educators.

Parents also play a vital role in student achievement. Parents are the primary teachers of children. They are responsible for their children's attendance at school. Among their many roles in a busy day are to send their children to school rested, fed and ready to learn, and monitor homework after the school day ends. More fundamentally, parents communicate to their children a vision of the future that includes success in school and career.

We have no greater responsibility than creating paths for our children to find their places in society as adults, whether it is holding a job, practicing subsistence, or raising a family - and sometimes all three. Schools play a role in this task, as do parents and communities. Our goal is for the parents, schools and communities to work hand in hand. The children must come first.

• Larry LeDoux is Alaska Commissioner of Education & Early Development and a former principal in and superintendent of in the Kodiak Island Borough School District.

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