JUNEAU (AP) -- Education Commissioner Rick Cross said Tuesday that he will leave Alaska at the end of the year to run a small school district in northern Michigan so he can work more closely with teachers, parents and children.
Cross, 55, took over the state's top education post in April 1999. Before that he served as deputy commissioner for four years and superintendent of the Fairbanks North Star School District for eight years.
''I'm a teacher first,'' Cross said, adding that the move would also benefit his wife and two daughters. ''I want to work with teachers and parents and kids.''
Gov. Tony Knowles asked the state board of Board of Education and Early Development to begin the search for a successor. The board was already scheduled to meet next week in Anchorage.
''His work on implementing standards testing through the Quality Schools Initiative has been admirable and we will seek a successor who can continue this important work of raising the overall effectiveness of Alaska schools and the standards we expect from our children in a fair manner.''
Cross is the fourth member of Knowles' cabinet to leave since July, when Natural Resources Commissioner John Shively announced his resignation. Public Safety Commissioner Ron Otte and Administration Commissioner Bob Poe followed in August. Knowles is approaching the second half of his administration's second term, when top appointees often begin to seek other employment.
Cross leaves in the midst of an ongoing controversy over the state's new high school exit exam. The test was given for the first time this year to sophomores who must pass it by the time they graduate in 2002.
After the scores came out, the Knowles administration -- including Cross -- called for a delay in that deadline to give schools more time to prepare students and install a broader system of standards and testing.
The test and more money to improve schools will likely be big issues when the Legislature convenes in January.
Cross said completing the installation of that system will be his successor's biggest challenge.
''It isn't how the kids perform on the test, it's how the adults behave that's going to determine whether we're successful or not,'' Cross said. ''People have worked hard in Alaska for over 10 years developing standards and it would be a real tragedy if that were for naught.''
Cross has clashed with lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature over issues ranging from the test to money for school quality grants and the construction of rural schools. Nevertheless, he has drawn praise from lawmakers in both parties for his straightforward approach.
''He was always very straight with us,'' said Rep. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, the chairman of the House Health, Education and Social Services Committee. ''We will suffer for his having moved on, although I don't begrudge him for seizing an opportunity in the twilight months of the Knowles administration.''
Cross's new job will take him back to the everyday routine of educating children. As superintendent of schools in Northport, Mich., he'll oversee a single school with about 300 students ranging from kindergartners to high school seniors.
''I will work with teachers, students, custodians, bus drivers, parents,'' Cross said. ''I will have tasks that are directly related to the day-to-day operation of the school.''
Cross said the school located near the tip of Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula is part of the Coalition for Essential Schools, a national organization that focuses on making schools effective. The school draws its students not only from the historic village of Northport, Cross said, but also from the nearby Grand Traverse Band Indian Reservation and the children of migrant workers who tend the area's cherry orchards.
He said he was attracted by the level of community involvement in the school, which is building a new performing arts center with $1 million in locally raised money.
''There isn't anyone in the community that isn't willing to be a part of the school,'' Cross said. ''They've been very successful.''
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