JUNEAU -- Not all school districts in Alaska are wringing their hands over the new high school exit exam.
In Unalaska the entire class of 2002 has passed the writing and reading tests and 90 percent have mastered the math. Valdez students are also in better shape than most. They've all made it through the reading test, 88 percent have mastered the writing and 69 percent passed math.
Statewide after last fall's testing, only 42 percent had passed math, 79 percent had passed reading and 55 percent had mastered writing. State law requires all students to pass the test, starting with the class of 2002.
What's the key to the top districts' success?
Interviews and state Department of Education and Early Development statistics show the five top-scoring districts -- Unalaska, Valdez, Skagway, Petersburg and Bristol Bay -- share some characteristics.
Most have a rich property tax base; their high schools are small, but not too small; and their communities strongly support schools. Also, they don't have too many poor children and most don't have too many bilingual students.
''I think we're sticking our heads in the sand if we don't understand and recognize that community types have an awful lot to do with the student outcomes,'' said Darroll Hargraves, executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators.
Unalaska, Valdez and Skagway are three of the four wealthiest communities in the state in terms of assessed property value per student, said Eddie Jeans, school finance manager for the Education Department.
A rich tax base doesn't mean a district can pump unlimited money into its schools. To avoid inequity in funding, state law sets a floor and a ceiling on much communities can spend.
But Hargraves said that doesn't mean students don't benefit in other ways from a community's wealth, perhaps through after-school programs, strong libraries, parks and other amenities that can enrich their education. And a rich tax base tends to signify a community with a healthy economy, jobs and stable families, he said.
A tax base isn't the only thing that matters, though. In the North Slope Borough, with the richest local property tax base in the state, students scored below the statewide average on the test. And Petersburg is closer to the middle of the pack statewide in local property values, Jeans said.
But Petersburg has other things going for it. As in the other top districts, the high school is relatively small -- about 215 kids.
''Kids don't fall through the cracks as easily as in a larger district,'' Superintendent Mary A. Francis said
But it's not too small. Unlike some of the state's tiniest schools, Petersburg is large enough it can hire specialists in every subject area. In other words, a math teacher teaches math, a science teacher teaches science and an English teacher teaches English.
''We're kind of in a way an ideal size district when you look at the research on what makes a difference in education,'' Francis said.
By contrast, some Bush schools are so tiny a couple of teachers may serve the entire K-12 student body. If none of those teachers has a math background, the school may not teach algebra -- or may not teach it well -- although algebra and geometry are tested on the state exam.
A place such as Petersburg has other things going for it, too, Francis said. It's very stable -- kids who start kindergarten together also graduate together 12 years later. Parents participate in the schools, and the local government puts about as much money into education as state law allows.
Carl Rose, executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards, said community values underpin education in each of the top five districts.
This is how he recalls sentiment in Skagway when he lived there: ''We expect our kids to do well. We expect our kids to work in the summer. We expect families to eat dinner together, I guess.''
The high-performing schools also benefit from low turnover in staff.
''People come here, build a life here, and when they're finished teaching, they stay,'' Francis said.
That's not the case in some Bush schools. Teachers often find life difficult in remote villages that may lack amenities such as modern plumbing, and turnover is high.
''It's not everybody's cup of tea, so we've got to work hard to get teachers, we've got to work hard to train them,'' said Debby Edwardson, a member of the North Slope Borough School Board.
Most of the high performing districts also have few poor students, compared to districts that struggled most with the test.
State Education Department reports show in Unalaska the percentage of low-income children is 4.5 percent. In Valdez it's 7 percent, in Skagway 5 percent, in Petersburg 13 percent, and in Bristol Bay 7 percent.
Most of the lowest performing districts had much higher poverty rates -- in the Yupiit district 53 percent of kids are low income, in Kashunamiut it's 61 percent, and in Southwest Region 58 percent.
An exception is Hydaburg, where students scored very low despite a reported poverty rate of just 3 percent. But many students there are bilingual, a factor that also corresponds to low scores.
In the top five districts the percentage of bilingual students ranges from zero in Skagway to 14 percent in Unalaska.
By contrast, the lowest performing districts had very high rates of bilingualism -- 90 percent in Yupiit, 99 percent in Hydaburg, 99 in Kashunamiut and 65 percent in Southwest Region.
''There's some bilingual issues that are very imbedded in kids' language that have some impact,'' said Steve Cathers, superintendent of the Valdez School District, who spent 13 years in the Northwest Arctic district. ''I don't want to overrate that, but I think you can't deny it.''
In a few villages students still grow up learning their Native language first. But when school districts talk about bilingualism in the Bush, they're usually not talking about a completely different language, but a form of English that is influenced by a Native language.
In ''village English,'' there may be differences in syntax and in subject-verb agreement, and some words don't mean the same thing, Cathers said.
''That can be very confusing on a test,'' Cathers said.
But Cathers, who has headed two of the top performing districts, Unalaska and now Valdez, said it's not just a community's demographic profile that determines academic achievement.
Success takes sound discipline, careful supervision of teachers, the willingness to drop teachers who don't perform well, a curriculum that matches the standards children are supposed to meet, teachers who are trained to use it and support from parents, he said.
When he was at Unalaska the district didn't offer tenure to mediocre teachers, he said, which he believes makes a difference.
''I think you can't underrate the power of excellent instruction,'' Cathers said.
But money plays a role there, too. Unalaska and Valdez have given their schools the maximum funding allowed by state law, Cathers said. If they hadn't, the schools would be different.
''We'd have less teachers and they wouldn't be paid as well,'' Cathers said. ''I don't think we'd be able to attract the same quality of teachers. So that's really a factor.''
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