Reforming schools to reflect new, higher standards will be hard work but is possible and worthwhile, according to Kenai Peninsula educators who attended a statewide conference in Soldotna.
About 300 teachers and principals, one third from the peninsula, attended the Quality Schools Institute, a week-long training and brainstorming session that ended Friday at Skyview High School.
The institute is an outgrowth of the Quality Schools Initiative, an educational reform drive from the administration of Gov. Tony Knowles and educators around the state. The initiative supports teaching to specific, measurable, statewide academic standards and improving academic performance and accountability.
"The whole concept of Quality Schools is awesome," said Polly Crawford, a teacher at Soldotna Middle School and a participant at the institute.
She and others from central peninsula schools said the institute was intense, diverse, sometimes frustrating and, for those who were properly prepared beforehand, rewarding.
The Alaska Staff Development Network organized the institute, its third. It asked schools or districts to send teams that reflected a cross-section of educators and were prepared to develop specific projects. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, because it was hosting the event, was able to send teams from 24 schools plus two teams from the central administrative office.
Roxy Kohler, program manager for the network, said the team approach and freewheeling conference structure have proven the most productive format for the institute. Her organization provided resources -- literature, online materials and visiting experts -- and turned the educators loose among them.
"We hired a whole host of consultants," she said Friday. "We have over 25 people here helping them."
Michael Gustkey, a teacher who headed the team from Soldotna Middle School, also attended the first Quality Schools Institute two years ago at Colony Middle School in the Matanuska Valley.
"It was extremely exciting," he recalled.
"At the first institute, the standards were just becoming a focal point. I think there was only one district in the state that had gone full-bore for changes."
Now more districts have been phasing in portions of the Quality Schools plan, with the result that they are all over the map with respect to how far along they are in overhauling their classes. Although some that are just beginning to try out the plan's aspects were somewhat at sea at the conference, the schools that have been working on projects and had clear goals were able to focus on networking opportunities, he said.
For example, people from the Kenai Peninsula schools have been concerned about the best way to accomplish meaningful and coordinated reform because the district here is so vast and varied.
Zada Friedersdorff, from Redoubt Elementary School, said it is difficult to use the same approaches here that have worked well in the state's smaller districts, some of which have less than 200 students.
"The whole system needs to move with (the reform)," she said.
Friedersdorff added that her team's project is to improve understanding within their school about implementing the Quality Schools Initiative.
Teachers use the initiative's concepts successfully in the classroom all the time, but may use different terminology for it. In some cases, other teachers or families outside the school do not know the extent of the reforms because of communications barriers, she said.
"It's not as many changes as you first think," Friedersdorff said.
"Part of (the institute) has been a validation of a lot of things we have been doing."
Peninsula educators were particularly interested in talking to an administrator from a North Carolina district similar in size to the Kenai Peninsula's. Through investing in a massive staff training effort, that district put reforms in place quickly.
"They took their whole district and revamped it in one year," Gustkey said. "It made it seem more attainable."
Grants might be available to help pay for staff training, such as funding through the Gates Foundation, which helped pay for the institute, they said.
The educators said the institute also connected them to help closer to home.
For example, the Soldotna teachers adopted formulas developed by the Iditarod School District, Gustkey said.
Discussions with other Alaska teachers helped his team broaden its project, which focuses on setting behavior standards for students. Others pointed out that the behavior training needed to link with classroom instruction.
"If you address the personal, social and employability standards, not only would discipline problems decrease, but the time and quality of the academic experience would increase," Gustkey said.
Participants even found new resources within their own schools, relishing the time to hash out ideas and develop rapport with their teammates.
"We've had time to talk," said Redoubt's Candy Goldstein.
Gustkey said that the interchange of ideas was the most valuable part of the institute.
"Why reinvent the wheel when you can benefit from people who have already been there?" he said.
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