Teachers in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District officially returned to work Wednesday -- exactly one week before students.
They gathered at three hub schools in Kenai, Seward and Homer for a briefing and pep talk from administrators. At Kenai Central High School, hundreds crowded into the auditorium to hear Superintendent Donna Peterson challenge them with provocative questions about boosting education quality.
"We want to replace the circle of blame with the circle of quality," she told them.
The district passed out copies of the new long-range plan devised in the spring and the mission statement.
Peterson emphasized that all teachers need to keep the mission and goals in mind as the foundation of what they and their colleagues do.
The district's official mission "... in partnership with the richly diverse communities, is to develop creative, productive learners who demonstrate the skills, knowledge and attitudes to meet life's challenges, by providing stimulating, integrated learning opportunities in a safe, supportive environment."
Peterson said, "The point is, every word in this mission statement was carefully chosen."
Parents expect schools to keep their children safe, teach them well, treat them with respect and make them feel special. Those expectations are universal truths and resemble those that adults, including teachers, have about how they will be treated in the work force, she said.
Part of the teachers' job is to translate the mission statement and goals into real things that touch and improve students' lives.
For example, she urged teachers to take classes on field trips to diverse schools elsewhere in the district, such as the Russian Old Believer community of Voznesenka or the Athabaskan village of Tyonek.
"We can maximize our efforts if we are all moving in the same direction," she said.
Peterson told the teachers an important part of that teamwork is minimizing negativity.
People tell her they hear teachers and others within the district criticizing it. Negative remarks tend to get picked up, embellished and passed around out of proportion to reality. This can undermine the district in insidious ways, especially now that it is competing for students with other education options.
"Folks, we know we've got things going on. But hey, with the choices out there, we are shooting ourselves in the foot," she said.
"We all need to be in this together. Let's work within the system to make it better."
The role of the district is changing, as it faces new challenges and perceptions such as fears of school violence, the Internet technology revolution and the rising popularity of home school.
"We are shifting from the business of schooling to the business of education," she said.
Peterson explained that the district is moving beyond learning confined to physical classrooms into a broader role for schools as community hubs and resources for technology and learning for adults as well as children.
Peterson urged teachers to keep focused on goals as schools go through changes in the new century.
The district's first goal is to engage high quality, research-based programs and practices to help each student reach his or her personal potential. She noted that means that Kenai Peninsula schools will not "teach to the middle" and that, despite the attention paid to struggling students, the brightest students must get attention, too.
The second goal is to exhibit high quality in all personnel, facilities, relationships and partnerships.
"If we do this right, we will create schools kids want to come to," she said.
Peterson reminded teachers to cultivate a sense of self and a sense of place. This sense of self should include personal accountability, purpose and enthusiasm for the work of teaching, she said.
The sense of place should include people's relationship to the peninsula. Citing comments by Kenai Peninsula College professor Alan Boraas, she urged people to learn -- and teach -- about the unique aspects of the peninsula.
Peterson also put in a plug for safety, reminding teachers to model careful practices and familiarize themselves with emergency plans before the first day of school.
"Who do you trust to pack your parachute?" she asked. "Think about that for every child in your class. For some of them, you are the only caring adult they come in contact with."
Peterson challenged her audience: "Passionate pursuit of educational excellence on the peninsula. ... What does that look like?"
During the school year, she visits schools and does what she called "walk-throughs" to keep in touch with what happens in individual classes. This upcoming year, she plans to add a new twist. She plans to change those "walk-throughs" to "look-fors," she warned.
She will be looking for classes where students are engaged and the teacher promotes learning as colorful and exciting.
"You can feel it," she said.
She asked teachers to ask themselves two vital questions: How will they judge the quality of student work? And how will they help parents be effective partners in education?
"Engage your public in making this work," she said.
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