Alaska legislators are getting a lesson on education this week. More than two dozen legislators from Fairbanks to Ketchikan are participating in classrooms this week as part of the Alaska Legislators Back to School program.
The event is sponsored by National Education Association-Alaska, a statewide educators' union.
Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, spent Thursday morning at Mendenhall River Elementary School supervising a math group and participating in a music lesson.
"We did a little bit of talking about what his job is, so in their future lives hopefully (the students) feel that elected people are accessible," said Deedie Sorensen, a second- and third-grade combination class teacher and NEA-Alaska member who hosted Weyhrauch.
Floyd Dryden teacher Paula Janowiec hosted Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, on Monday. Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, is scheduled to spend a day in a local school sometime in December.
Having three children in the Juneau School District, Weyhrauch appeared to be more than comfortable in a classroom setting. At one point he turned the number eight into a caricature of a cat on a dry-erase board, and later danced with the students as they practiced for a concert. He said he enjoys spending time in the classroom and often volunteers at Auke Bay Elementary School, Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School and Juneau-Douglas High School, where his children attend.
"The importance is to just do a reality check on what you're paying for because (education) is a huge component of the budget and it's critically important," Weyhrauch said.
He said getting into the classroom helps legislators make a real connection with teachers and students, especially those without children who might not have the opportunity to do so otherwise.
"I think it's important to appreciate the hard work the teachers and staff put into the school and also how important it is to realize that the smaller the class the better the learning experience is."
Sorensen said she hopes the legislators will come away from their experiences this week with a greater understanding of the issues facing Alaska's schools.
"I think we're facing - and it's not a secret - a huge funding shortfall in education," she said.
With four math groups and six reading groups, Sorensen said it is difficult to manage the different academic levels of the students to ensure that each student continues to progress as quickly as possible.
"You can't teach to the middle, you have to meet them where they are at and instruct them at that level and go on," she said.
Sorensen said she thinks Juneau is losing good teachers because salaries aren't competitive and many are leaving from "burnout" because of a steady decline in resources and materials. As an example, Sorensen pointed to the many books she has provided for her class.
"Those are all personal property. I've bought all of those out of my own pocket to supplement the reading," she said.
Music teacher Joan Rohloff also said she hopes Weyhrauch will address the budget in the coming legislative session.
"I think more funding obviously would be nice. I think schools, parents and communities are probably getting a little frustrated always having to give and do fundraisers," she said.
"More funding would really enrich the kids' lives. Music is so important and a lot of kids learn best through music."
Weyhrauch said being in the classroom adds to legislators' empathy for educators.
"It's the responsibility of all the people in Juneau who care about education and care about children's education to speak up and insist on adequate funding," Sorensen said.
The quality and funding of education has a ripple effect in the community, Weyhrauch said.
"Eventually they are going to be dealing with these kids at Fred Meyer and if they're frustrated with not getting their correct change and knowing what's going on, well get involved."