As a product of the public school system here in Alaska from kindergarten through high school, I received a solid educational foundation that amply prepared me for college and law school. The experiences afforded me through school sports and other programs, even in remote areas of Alaska, were far ranging and life defining.
While I realize much has changed since my years in Alaska’s public school system, I can attest that all four of our children who graduated from West High School in Anchorage were equally well prepared for college and professional studies. They had a myriad of opportunities and many quality teachers who helped set their course. One of our daughters has stated that she could not imagine there being a better educator on the planet, even at an Ivy League college level, than her Honors’ English teacher at West High School.
In their elementary years, our children were also fortunate to attend Sonrise Christian School where I served on the school board. I know first hand, the benefits of a small private school system with a high level of parental involvement and ownership in the success of the programs and accomplishments of the students. Still, when our children discuss the impact of those years on their lives, they reflect upon a certain principal who took a personal interest in each child and a third grade teacher who made learning fun.
Our public schools must be adequately funded but we must remember it is the quality of our teachers, not our facilities and equipment, that make the critical difference. When I graduated from high school, my family was still struggling from the devastating financial consequences we suffered from the ’64 earthquake. I was only able to attend my first year of college because my former third grade school teacher at Fort Greeley Elementary School, Mrs. Keveren, invited me into her family’s home in Oregon where I lived my freshman year of college because I could not afford the dorm.
Yes, facilities and all of the modern advances in equipment and technology are important. But our focus needs to be on attracting and retaining the very best educators who approach their positions as a calling, not just a job. Several of my elementary school years were spent in Quonset hut buildings at Fort Greely. In one of those Quonset huts I was fortunate to be a student in the classroom of Mrs. Keveren, with whom I still correspond and visit today. I felt no disadvantages from learning within the confines of a Quonset hut, only rewards from having been taught by a remarkable teacher.
But I realize that not all students’ experiences have been as satisfactory as mine and our high school graduation rates are deplorable. I do believe our education menu is just too limited. We will not increase our percentage of graduates by implementing another standardized testing system based either on federal or state criteria. Those high schools in Alaska with the highest rate of graduation are those that offer as part of their mainstream education curriculum, training in the trades. Students in those schools can graduate and go right onto college should that be their desire or they can get a job helping build much needed Alaska infrastructure or go right into the medical/service industry. Our education challenges will not be improved with more infrastructure, it will be improved on what goes on within the walls of those schools. We need to look at those schools with the highest rates of graduates and adjust the curriculum in those schools with the lower graduation rates.