Innovation targeted at teacher turnover, remediation

The leaders of Southcentral school districts and a nationally renowned University of Alaska Anchorage program are blending high school and college in an attempt to cure the state of multiple education ills.

The Anchorage School District recently took over the Alaska Middle College from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, which is expanding the program in its own territory.

Given the classes are held at UAA’s Eagle River campus, it made sense for Anchorage School District students to attend and allow Mat-Su students to utilize a similar opportunity closer to home, ASD Administrative Projects Director Kathy Moffitt said.

Moffitt first worked on the Alaska Middle College with the Mat-Su District before transitioning to Anchorage.

Over at UAA’s main campus, Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program founder Herb Schroeder is expanding his wildly successful efforts to grow more young Alaskan engineers and scientists to include building “a cadre of Alaskan teachers,” Schroeder said.

“We need Alaskan teachers, people who love this place, people who will always be here no matter what,” he said.

Moffitt and Schroeder spoke during a June 13 luncheon in Anchorage hosted by the local public policy think tank Commonwealth North.

The work both are doing is aimed at conquering major issues in Alaska’s K-12 education system from the ground up. It’s based on the presumption that more prepared students will make better teachers who improve what are currently less-than-stellar student performance metrics.

According to Schroeder, 60 percent of University of Alaska freshman coming from the 37 largest high schools in the state over the past decade have needed remedial math or English courses.

At the lowest performing high schools, the remediation rate is nearly 75 percent of college-bound students, who have an average high school GPA of 3.16, he said.

That means many of the students who qualify for the state Performance Scholarship don’t have the skills to jump into college.

Annually, about 1,000 students arrive at a UA campus in need of remedial education, Schroeder said.

“Imagine being on the honor roll and an academic hero with scholarships to prove how awesome you are and you find out that you are a year or more in some cases behind where you thought you were,” he described. “It’s an esteem-shattering gut punch. Financially, it can be devastating for families.”

Adding a year of remedial classes — that don’t count towards college credits — collectively costs the families of those students about $24 million each year in extra tuition, books and room and board expenses. It also costs the state another $18 million per year given its support of the university budget, according to Schroeder.

Finally, because the state is the primary funder of K-12 education and 70 percent of the students in need of remediation passed high school classes that should have prevented that need, “the state’s paying twice,” he said, while at the same time trying to fill a $2.5 billion budget shortfall.

“Right now that whole $42 million is being spent (by families and the state on remedial classes) trying to repair the damage that was done over the previous 12 years and what I want to do is to take a portion of that money and reinvest it earlier so that we don’t have to repair that damage,” Schroeder said.

Alaska Middle College has quietly been providing high school students the opportunity to earn high school and college credits at the same time for five years. In the school’s last graduating class, 13 students took an associate’s degree home along with their high school diploma, according to Moffitt.

“Students test into college just as any student would and they attend classes with other college students,” she said.

Available to high school juniors and seniors, Alaska Middle College is a way to support the students through what is ostensibly their first year of college, which is usually the most difficult, Moffitt said.

It’s a way to ease the transition from high school to adulthood — and it’s free to students and their families.

“The power behind the program is the opportunity,” she said.

Alaska Middle College is mostly aimed at getting students a head start on general education college courses, but is also developing a career and technical education, or CTE pathway focused on preparing students to become teachers.

The four-course startup program is awaiting accreditation to make it college-credit eligible, Moffitt said, and the district wants to install it in Anchorage’s East High School next year.

The Alaska Middle College students are placed in K-12 classrooms to mostly to observe teaching methods and student-teacher interactions from a different viewpoint the first year. In year two they “become active contributors and teachers working with students,” Moffitt said.

The education-focused program came out of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ K-12 outreach program, she added.

Schroeder stresses a need for quality control and consistency in what is being taught in high school classrooms to match what the university needs students to know.

Many, including him, believe the problem is directly linked to high teacher turnover across the state. According to the UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research, teacher turnover averages about 20 percent statewide and costs the state about another $20 million each year.

Given the four largest school districts are generally below 10 percent turnover, many rural districts are watching upwards of 40 percent of their teachers leave each summer without coming back.

Additionally, each year Alaska school districts hire about 1,000 teachers, while the state’s postsecondary schools produce only about 200 teachers per year, according to ISER.

High teacher turnover — often due to the culture shock of moving from the Lower 48 to remote parts of Alaska — leads to teachers that don’t understand the unique needs of their students and apathy amongst teachers who decide quickly they will be leaving at the end of the year, among other problems, state education officials acknowledge.

So Schroeder is trying to produce more homegrown teachers who know about and are excited about living and working in rural Alaska.

He is working to start another of ANSEP’s full-time Acceleration High Schools in Anchorage in 2018. Classes in a summer version of the Acceleration school are going on now at UAA and ANSEP has another Acceleration program in the Mat-Su.

ANSEP is open to all Alaska middle and high school students.

“Many rural students want to live in villages and teaching is one of the few employment opportunities available there and the Acceleration High Schools provide the opportunity to complete much of the degree before students ever arrive at the university,” he said.

Classes at Acceleration schools are taught by university faculty with support from K-12 teachers and— similar to the Alaska Middle College — students earn dual credits that can be applied to biology, engineering, business, education and other degrees.

The schools are predicated on experiential learning and getting students excited about their work and their future, which Schroeder emphasizes is the most basic key to improving classroom performance.

Acceleration students are also regularly mentored by peers and university students, which has helped many ANSEP students discover a love of teaching, Schroeder said.

“We’re developing these schools now and success is going to require a new look at how we do education. Nibbling around the edges is not going to get us where we need to go,” he said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

06/14/2017 - 12:24pm