The state is hiring a new rural education director, hoping to boost performance at some of the state's struggling rural schools.
"We know that despite 50 years of effort, we're just not making the progress we need to make," said Larry LeDoux, commissioner of the Department of Education and Early Development.
LeDoux is now interviewing applicants for the new position. The person will work out of the Juneau office but spend a lot of time traveling to outlying communities.
The new effort has won quick praise from observers such as Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, a member of the House Education Committee, which was briefed on the position at an interim committee meeting last week.
"I think it's definitely a positive development," she said.
The new director can help build connections between school boards, nonprofit organizations, Native corporations and rural communities, and keep their concerns on the forefront of thinking in the department in Juneau, LeDoux said.
In Alaska, rural often means Native, and LeDoux said working to improve Native education will be a significant part of the new rural director's job.
The idea is to help schools in those areas succeed, despite hurdles they currently face, he said.
"One of the missing ingredients is making sure that our indigenous communities are involved intimately in the education of their children," LeDoux said.
National Education Association-Alaska President Barb Angaiak praised the attention LeDoux was bringing to rural education in Alaska, and said she'll be watching who is hired.
The new rural director "needs authentic teaching experience in rural Alaska" with a teacher or administrator certificate, she said. Angaiak's union is affiliated with the National Education Association.
"They have to have a true grasp of what the issues are," she said.
The community support that Angaiak mentioned is something LeDoux said the new director will work on, trying to find ways that communities can help their schools succeed.
Communities need to take more responsibility for their schools; it sometimes seems that communities host their schools, rather than own them, he said.
Federal education reform efforts such as No Child Left Behind have compounded a problem of disconnect, he said. When local schools fail to meet annual benchmarks, the state can be required to take them over.
"We need more local control, not less," LeDoux said.
LeDoux said he knows the improvements can happen.
"Pre-Western contact, Alaska Native culture had one of the most precision education systems in the world," he said.
"They were able to effectively pass on hunting, religious values, customs, their entire culture, with such accuracy they were able to thrive in one of the harshest environments on Earth."
The new position is being funded out of this year's budget, as part of $800,000 the Legislature allocated to provide technical assistance to rural schools.
Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.