Alaska sends trustee to failing Yupiit schools

Anchorage, Alaska (AP) July 2010

The state Department of Education is sending a trustee to oversee instruction in Alaska's poorest-performing school district, the Yupiit School District near Bethel along the Kuskowim River.

The Anchorage Daily News reports that sending an outsider to salvage test scores is unprecedented in modern-day Alaska.

Fewer than one in 10 sixth- and seventh-graders were writing at grade level this spring in the district, which includes Akiachak, Akiak and Tuluksak.

The trustee is Darrell Sanborn, a retired Unalaska superintendent currently coaching Indian reservation schools in Montana. He has worked for the Lower Yukon and Yukon Koyokuk districts and was named Alaska superintendent of the year in 2007.

Sanborn hopes to begin next month. The Education Department's June 29 order gives him authority of the district's instructional program – reading, writing, math.

If the district doesn't make enough progress by the end of the year, he could be put in charge of the district's budget.

The district was formed in the mid-1980s when, according to news reports at the time, villagers sought local control of education as the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs withdrew.

Longtime school board member Mike Williams was an advocate for tribal governments as former chairman of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council.

The appointment of a trustee could signal a step toward ``the dark days'' of state-operated schools, said Williams, who grew up in Akiak and attended a boarding school in Oregon when he reached high school.

The Education Department is stressing Sanborn's role is one of cooperation and support.

``If they were looking for an authoritarian person, they wouldn't have come to me,'' said Sanborn, who also has worked as an assistant superintendent in Kotzebue and counselor in Bering Strait villages such as Shishmaref and Little Diomede.

The 57-year-old educator talked about the job in a recent phone interview with The Anchorage Daily News. Here are excerpts:

Q. The state's order says you'll have authority over the instructional program, but what does that mean, really?

A. To me, the instructional program is reading, writing and math. I don't want to cut out other subjects. I know science is also being tested now, and you've got arts and P.E. and everything else. But to me it's the basic ... reading, writing and math.

Q. You'll have authority over what's taught in the district and how it's taught?

A. I don't know how to answer this other than if they were looking for an authoritarian person, they wouldn't have come to me.

... I read (Mike Williams') quote, but you know I'd have to believe that everybody has the same hopes and dreams for their children in that community. And the teachers and school board and staff and parents and the communities in terms of just having their kids be proficient.

Q. What do you know about why the scores are so low in the Yupiit district? The past four or five years, they're the lowest in the state.

A. I don't know why, but it's been longer than four or five years. One thing that's plagued many rural districts has been teacher turnover. Administrator turnover. Just – there's no consistency there. And you see that a lot.

... You may or may not remember (with the federal law) No Child Left Behind, they were talking about restructuring schools and you know going in and (letting all the teachers go) because they were the problems.

But yet in the problems in the Bush, it's not teachers doing nothing. It's teachers coming and going.

(Note: Nearly half of teachers working in the Yupiit district in 2008 did not return in 2009, according to the Institute of Social and Economic Research at UAA.)

Q. How do you combat teacher turnover?

A. Support. Whatever you can do. I mean, honor the work they're doing, you know, and support them in terms of just meeting their needs in terms of staff development.

Q. What other potential reasons are there for those consistently low test scores?

A. One thing that we always very much tried to protect was our instruction time. Just focusing on teaching and leaving all these other things aside. ... Teachers sometimes can get interrupted by folks that want to come from different organizations. Or sometimes the dentist wants to come in. It's like trying to set those things outside the school day.

Q. What can one more administrator do to turn around years of underperformance?

A. Well, I think another set of eyes. And then again: focusing only on the instructional plan part of it. ... If you don't make a conscious effort of just focusing on the instructional program and you're always dealing with all this outside stuff that's going on in the district. And sometimes they're real legit. If a boiler goes down, you better take care of it. ... But all that stuff kind of gets in the way of just focusing on that instructional program.

Q. Are there specific problems in the district that have been identified and can be addressed that are any different from challenges common to all rural school districts?

A. I don't know that I can answer that now. I do know, and this was maybe back in '05, '06, around there was an audit done at Yupiit and there was some discussion about some of the programs being a mile wide and a foot deep. ... Basically they were looking for a silver bullet and you know, there are no silver bullets.

Q. The state seems to be describing more of an advisory role for you.

A. I think the state wants it to be more of a support role than an advisory role. Of really getting in and rolling up your sleeves and working. ... All the educators that they have there have got years of experience in Alaska and they worked in the Bush. Some of them I know.

What they're trying to do is support the school and the district, the Yupiit district, to hopefully get things turned around.

Also, it didn't get this way overnight. It won't get fixed right away but there is a sense of urgency. ...

Everything that I've heard from DOE is that the first thing is to work cooperatively and collaboratively with the folks. The whole question of local control and whether this interferes with it – hopefully it will do good things for kids and so there won't be a discussion.''

Q. On the topic of student attendance:

A. One thing about attendance, we've looked at pretty hard down here (in Montana) with the different reservations and we had one school go to – start school an hour later. And that increased their attendance dramatically.

Q. Is that something an Alaska school should try?

A. I don't know. I think you have to start looking a little bit outside the box in terms of how do you provide education services, you know, and remediation services and getting kids to school.

Q. How long is your contract for?

A. Well, I didn't notice this but it was in the fine print – it said something about three years. Where Yupiit has to (improve scores) 2 percent per year, which is very, very doable.

I'm hoping it won't be three years. I'm too old.