Education leaders addressed the topic: "Is our education system failing our rural youth" Wednesday at the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce's convention.
John White, deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach, Larry LeDoux, Education and Early Development commissioner, Bernice Joseph, University of Alaska Fairbanks Chancellor for rural community, and Native education and Bernie Gurule, principal at Mount Edgecumbe discussed rural education and Alaska.
White said the team has been traveling nationwide and visiting all kinds of schools. He said he visited three schools in Alaska, including one in Hooper Bay.
"The anchor of (Hooper Bay) was the school," White said. "How do you keep great teachers in the school? Without housing brought in by the community and government, I don't know how you'd keep teachers in that school."
White noted it's important to develop policy that's flexible since rural schools and urban schools have different sets of challenges and opportunities.
Joseph, who is also involved with the Early Learning Council, said education for the future begins at a very young age. She said the campuses she oversees across the state have larger enrollments in early childhood education when grant funds come in from the federal government. White said there is a large amount of discretionary funding being made available this year.
Joseph said years ago there weren't Alaska Native colleges in the state. Since they emerged, more Alaska Native students are enrolling in higher education and in education careers.
"We have a very successful program in terms of preparing Alaska Native teachers," she said. "There has been an effort in growing our own teachers."
Joseph stressed that scholarships and grants are significantly important for getting rural students the opportunity to go to college. She said in Nome, 90 percent of students are either supported by the school district, tribe or a corporation.
Gurule said he sees a lot of students entering school that aren't prepared. He said there are a lot of students statewide taking remedial classes in math and English when they enter college.
"Many go into a post-high school career not fully prepared," he said. "To say we're not doing the job at all is not fair or right, but there are a lot of improvements to be made."
Gurule said Mount Edgecombe has a huge advantage over other schools in the state because it has 24/7 control over students. While the classroom portion of the day ends at 4 p.m., there are study sessions and other academic-related activities into the evening and their whole day is accounted for.
He said there are 15 goals for preparing students for the outside world, eight of which are related to preparing them for work. Gurule also noted that students have the opportunity to work on occupational endorsements for construction-related fields and nursing because they're so close to the university. A student can earn 29 college credits while in high school.
"Another thing to emphasize or make clear, we recognize that not a single day goes by when we appreciate the huge sacrifice people make by sending their sons and daughters to a boarding school," he said. "Our hope is, a lot of those students go back to their village and become leaders. Some do, others do not."
LeDoux spoke about the focus needing to be on individual students. He said that as a teacher, he never paid much attention to statistics and he still doesn't as commissioner.
LeDoux said students need rigorous programs to prepare them for college or careers. He said businesses have told them students need to learn the basics, and they want students with work ethics and common sense.
"Young people need high expectations," he said. "People talk a lot about what kids can't do. I've never met a kid yet who can't do more. My vision for children has always been unlimited. Kids must be accountable."
LeDoux said education needs to have purpose, place and meaning or students won't be successful. He said there is too much emphasis on politics and trendy programs. He said teachers are getting burned out from constant changes in programming that focus year after year on teachers. They're also tired of focusing on one learning element to improve solely for test scores.
His department developed a plan with a list of initiatives to move the quality of Alaska's education system forward, with the help of community conversations. He said it's time for Alaska to offer world-class education, value and work with families and listen to cultures. He said Alaska Natives need to buy in to public education, and LeDoux believes it hasn't happened because they've never been asked to.
"It's a fundamental," he said. "Give ownership of education back to the people."
LeDoux said Alaska didn't buy into the national core education plan because theirs was already in the process of being developed.
The panel was asked what business's responsibility is in education.
LeDoux said in Kodiak, there are a lot of partnerships with businesses and those have helped sharpen the learning focus.
"We can't do it without them," he said.
Gurule said they don't really need monetary donations - though they'd gladly accept them. But what is really needed for student success is for businesses to offer internships or other work study options.
Joseph said there already is tremendous support from businesses, including donations of equipment for aviation, culinary arts and other departments, but she agreed internships are vital.
"They are opportunities for students to apply their knowledge," Joseph said. "More importantly, they're providing role models to many of the students in our programs."
Kip Knudson, Tesoro Alaska manager, was concerned about the graduation rate. He said 40 percent of students aren't receiving a diploma despite long investments in their success.
"I don't know where they're going," he said. "I don't know what they end up doing. Is a (diploma) important anymore? It is certainly a barrier to employment. Is that piece of paper, are we looking at the wrong thing?
LeDoux said a diploma is certainly still important. He said the focus isn't currently on graduates, but making sure that the diploma's earned are actually meaningful. LeDoux said they're more concerned about challenging students to work hard.
Joseph said it's important and noted that a focus is needed on those falling through the cracks. She said the GED program is effective, citing that GED graduates from the Bethel area are the second-largest graduating class in the state.
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