Recommitting to Alaska’s Education Challenge

Lon Garrison, AASB Executive Director

In 2017 I wrote a short Commentary article about the newly minted “Alaska’s Education Challenge.”  I just reread that piece and realized that the challenge remains and that while we have made some progress here and there, we still struggle to see outcomes for all of our students improve significantly.  Add on top of a pandemic that has fundamentally challenged how our education system works, and I realized that our education challenge for Alaska students remains unsatisfied. 

For some, the lack of significant progress may seem disheartening, but I see that we have made some progress, and more importantly, we have shown we can be resilient. We can learn from the adversity the pandemic has created and amplified.  The pandemic has shown us all that a successful and responsive education system depends on all of us. In whatever role we play, we are crucial to meeting the challenge and providing an excellent education for every student every day.  We must recommit ourselves to taking up this challenge.

When I think about our challenges today, what I wrote in 2017 still holds true:

“If we want Alaska’s Education Challenge to succeed, then school board members and their boards must work diligently to practice informed oversight while balancing their role as individual members against the need to benefit the whole. Alaska’s school boards must become focused on meeting the needs of every student no matter who they are, where they come from, and what their conditions are. There are many distractions and many opportunities for failure.  If boards concentrate on their role to deliberately consider and create the opportunities to succeed, to support, and to lead the people we depend upon to provide our students with an excellent education every day, then our challenge can be met. For school boards, the transformation is not a change of the system of governance but a paradigm shift of the importance and impact that each board can and should exert on improving student achievement.”

AASB’s philosophy to improving student outcomes has always been a more comprehensive and holistic approach.  Our efforts supporting a framework of Culturally Responsive Social Emotional Learning (CRESEL), Trauma Engaged Practices (using the Transforming Schools – Trauma Engaged Practices Toolkit), and our extensive work with community engagement, especially our approach from the “early childhood to postsecondary” perspective promoted in our STEPS work in Southeast Alaska are testaments to this intrinsic belief that education is more than just the classroom or a Zoom meeting.  In 2017 here is what I wrote and what we still hold as true:

“We understand that a more holistic, integrated approach that builds support and engagement by all stakeholders is the only sustainable, resilient approach to improving the outcomes for student achievement.  A critical element of this approach is a governance model that is based upon a platform of equity enabling the local educational system to effectively address student achievement disparities.”

As I look at our recent past and all the adversity we have faced: a pandemic, budget shortfalls, uncertain funding, highly charged political and social conflicts, teacher and administrator shortages, and a lack of respect and empathy by many who may have differing perspectives, I am heartened to know that there are still good people willing to step up and take on school governance leadership. I still see many longtime school board members at our conferences and workshops, recommitting themselves to the work of meeting our education challenge.  I don’t think I could write my closing sentiments better today than I did in 2017:

“Effective school boards govern through a shared vision and mission with their community and stakeholders.  These boards use the urgency to educate each child to drive their work forward.  Effective boards consider policies and resource allocation based upon a plan of equity propelled by clearly defined goals and strategies upon which both the superintendent and the board itself can be held accountable.  For school boards, Alaska’s Education Challenge is not so much the transformation of delivering an excellent education for every student every day, as it is the challenge to use effective governance to enable that to happen.  The challenge is to sit with your fellow board members, bring your voice and perspective to the table and create a governance system that embraces, supports, and holds accountable an education system that must do better.  Are you as a board member ready to meet that challenge?”

With the start of 2022 just around the corner, would you join me in recommitting to take on Alaska’s Education Challenge and make an excellent education for every student every day a reality?

Be safe, and have a wonderful holiday season!  It will be a very white and wintry one here in Juneau! I look forward to meeting you, listening to you, and supporting you in the work of governing public education systems throughout our great state. 

Most sincerely yours,

Lon Garrison

Executive Director, AASB