Northern Lights: These Schools Literally Leave No Child Behind
In remote Alaska, an innovative district ditches grade levels -- and increases learning.
What does it really mean to leave no child behind? The educators of Alaska's Chugach School District believe they have the answer.
The Aurora Borealis dances over the Chugach Mountains above Anchorage, the headquarters of the Chugach School District's reforms.
There are no grade levels in the rural district, which is based in Anchorage and serves tiny villages scattered throughout 22,000 square miles of remote areas of south central Alaska. Instead, each of its few hundred students tote around report cards as thick as history texts. Each packet details the individual student's progress through the district's more than 1,000 learning standards as they move from kindergarten to high school graduation.
AUDIO SLIDE SHOW: Jed and Nichole Palmer on Teaching for Mastery
Produced by Grace Rubenstein. Photography by Grace Rubenstein and Douglas Penn.
Ask any secondary school student, and he or she can tell you, for example, "I'm at level five in math, level seven in reading, level six in career development." Students mark up the packets to track how far they've come, turning each page into a hodgepodge of multicolored highlights and scribbles. Take a snapshot of all the students' report cards at any point,and each one will look different.
At the core of the Chugach model is this rule: To move to the next level, you must master the one that precedes it. There is no sitting in the back row and skating by. Every child must learn every subject at every level, passing with proficiency equivalent to at least 80 percent -- essentially, a B minus. And when they're done, they're done, whether that means they finish when they're sixteen or twenty-one.
"Time was the constant and learning was the variable -- that's the old model," says Roger Sampson, president of the Education Commission of the States, who led Chugach's transformation as district superintendent in the 1990s. "We switched. What's constant is learning. Time is the variable."
And Sampson says that switch, revolutionary as it may seem, can and should be made in every district, large or small, in Alaska and beyond.
AUDIO SLIDE SHOW: Jed and Nichole Palmer on Living in Tatitlek
Produced by Grace Rubenstein. Photography by Grace Rubenstein and Douglas Penn.
Even as globalization and media propel our culture -- and our classrooms -- toward modes of production that are bigger, faster, and more alike, Chugach has refocused on an approach to education that is smaller, personalized, and variably paced. As Douglas Penn, the districtwide principal, explains, "Our kids graduate when they're ready. We're not pumping them out the door with D's on their diplomas."
This individualized pacing doesn't mean Chugach coddles its students. In fact, it places a great deal of responsibility on them. Teachers expect pupils to direct their own learning -- with guidance, of course -- and complete some of the district standards through projects they create and conduct. The older the kids get, the more leadership they must assume. An example of this ethos is the work of Jordan Geffe, who last spring wrote an essay on the healthiness of city life versus village life. He chose the assignment, topic, and argument (his thesis: Village life is healthier), and compiled evidence to back it up. In explaining the essay, Jordan opened his report card and pointed to exactly what he hoped to achieve: "Write a proficient composition that gives reasons."
At times, the demands can be "pretty upsetting," says Teresa Totemoff, a recent graduate of Tatitlek Community School, who recalls slacking off for a while and then realizing she had much work to do to graduate. "I remember crying, 'I don't want to do it no more!' But it was my own progress. I was proud of all I got done."
The Chugach schools arrived at their approach by way of disaster. In the early 1990s, the district had reached a crisis; its students could barely read, and graduates routinely failed to hold jobs or become productive members of their communities. The district had produced only a few college graduates in two decades. Alienation and mistrust divided the schools' staff from the communities they served. Superintendent Robert Crumley, a teacher at the time, recalls that staff talked about standing on a "burning platform" -- a foundation that could collapse at any moment.
Roger Sampson, a new arrival from Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, embarked on a complete overhaul by enlisting the support and input of both staff and the district's communities. Chugach serves 214 students. More than half are homeschooled, with district support; the others attend school in one of three communities carved out of the evergreens at the bases of mountains rising from Prince William Sound.
In Whittier, a former U.S. Army port, most of the 182 residents live in a high-rise building across the street from the school. Residents typically work at the cannery, at the small boat harbor, or in industries such as railroad, shipping, and tourism.
Jordan Geffe sets crab traps with teacher Jed Palmer for a science experiment.
Credit: Douglas Penn
The villages of Tatitlek and Chenega Bay, with populations of about 100 and 50 respectively, are accessible only by boat or charter plane. People here -- mostly members of the Native Alaskan Alutiiq tribe -- get by largely on government and tribal subsidies and their traditional practices of hunting, fishing, and berry picking. A handful of residents work on the trans-Alaska oil pipeline in nearby Valdez.
Native and mainstream American cultures collide in these two hamlets: A villager might go seal hunting during the day and then watch American Idol via satellite TV that night. Eagles glide over the houses while hip-hop music booms from open windows.
Over several years, Sampson and his colleagues repaired the schools' relationship with the villages and shifted to the standards-based system. In response to community concerns, they introduced standards in service learning; career development; personal, social, and health development; technology; and cultural awareness (particularly about Alutiiq culture). All of these subjects are required in different quantities for graduation, as are conventional studies in math, reading, writing, science, and social studies.
Teachers may assess students' skills through various means, including observation, projects, written work, performances, tests, and portfolios. In place of grades, students receive ratings of emerging, developing, proficient (the minimum required to pass), or advanced -- a nomenclature alumna Teresa Totemoff likes because "if you're developing, there's always room for improvement."
Before the change, students felt school was disconnected from their real life, and the system as it stood obstructed teachers from assessing and providing for kids' individual needs. "Common sense had been weeded out of education," Crumley says, "so we tried to build a system that made common sense."
Sampson also trimmed back the administrative staff to help place more teachers in classrooms. There are now eight and a half teaching positions for the eighty-one students in Whittier, Tatitlek, and Chenega Bay. Principal Douglas Penn visits the sites regularly by charter plane.
Starting with the transformation, the staff made it standard practice to engage students in projects with real-world applications, such as research on the local effects of climate change. Educators see their role as preparing students not solely for college but also for work, military service, or myriad future endeavors. Above all, they want Chugach graduates to have choices.
Teacher Stephen Grajewski reads a student’s story with Jacob and Ayeisha Kompkoff.
Credit: Grace Rubenstein
Within four years, Chugach shot from the twentieth percentile in reading on the nationally normed California Achievement Test to the eightieth percentile. In 2001, the district won a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award -- the smallest organization and one of the first educational institutions to win. Nine other rural Alaska districts have adopted or are considering implementing models like Chugach's.
Now, more than 80 percent of Chugach students who took the state's third-grade and ninth-grade exams last year passed in reading, and more than 60 percent passed in math. Of the twenty-five graduates the district has tracked since 2001, fifteen are enrolled in college or have already graduated, five work full time, two are in the military, and two are stay-at-home moms. Chugach can legally fund enrollment for students until age twenty-one, though every student over eighteen counts against the graduation rate under the No Child Left Behind Act.
"It has made a big difference," says Pete Kompkoff, the tribal president in Chenega Bay. "Kids are doing more practical things than before. They're being exposed to the public more. It makes them realize that there's another world out there besides this isolated village, and everything they learn has to tie into that wilderness out there."
Way to Learn
Day to day, teachers weave independent learning time, direct instruction, and projects into a fluid matrix. One morning last April, Tatitlek lead teacher Jed Palmer took five students to a rocky tidal area to set traps for the nonnative green crab, arriving in Prince William Sound from points south in ships' ballasts.
Through Youth Area Watch (YAW), a district program funded by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, the students planned to count their catch and relay the information to local scientists studying the problem.
After the outing, Palmer returned to school to teach a higher-level math class, where eight or so students worked in books and on computers; he helped them individually as needed. Nineteen-year-old Margie Allen took a quiz on polygons, and Palmer scored it immediately: 90 percent. Allen, wearing the standard Tatitlek teen fashion ensemble of jeans and a baggy sweatshirt, was already halfway through the math book she had started two weeks earlier, determined to catch up after a five-month hiatus in Anchorage. ("I had to get out of here," she says. "It's too isolated.")
That afternoon, Palmer gave a lesson to all the older students on sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rocks. For conceptual lessons such as this, Chugach teachers typically give all kids the same instruction, then adjust the expectations for each one depending on his or her level. Palmer ended the day with time for students to work on their independent projects.
Besides these targeted lessons, teachers often weave multiple standards into larger thematic units that span content areas and levels. Two of the district's favorite such projects came from Chenega Bay, where husband-and-wife teaching team Stephen Grajewski and LeeAnn Galusha helped their students create books about two local staples, salmon and blueberries, including recipes, images, and stories about the foods' place in Alutiiq culture. All their students, from elementary school through high school age, contributed to the books, which sell in a museum shop, in a bookstore, and on the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry for $8.
Grajewski and Galusha like the standards-based system in part because it empowers kids to own their learning and gives them the opportunity for frequent, incremental successes. Reading comprehension, for instance, is not assessed as a single skill; it's broken into standards as minute as isolating the initial sounds in words and retelling a story from memory. Once a kid knows the material, Grajewski says, "you don't have to wait to move up. You can do it now."
"It's intuitive," says Galusha. "If you really think about it, this is how it should be done."
The standards-based system also gives students the flexibility to participate in online courses, outdoor projects such as YAW, and educational travel, which is supported by grants. Five or six times throughout their schooling, kids stay for three to ten days at Anchorage House, a district-owned home in the city, where they do job internships and learn to navigate the demands of urban life, a primer that eases students' often-rocky transition to college or work after graduation. If missing school meant they would fall behind their peers and fail their classes, they couldn't have these experiences.
One student who has capitalized on that flexibility is Chenega Bay's Ian Angaiak (grandson of tribal president Pete Kompkoff). He participated in YAW and Alaskan Scientists of the Future, another program that pairs students with scientists for inquiry-based learning, through which he traveled to Hawaii and learned methods to measure sun radiation and water salinity. Despite those continuity breaks, the sixteen-year-old will graduate a year early if he keeps his pace. (Principal Douglas Penn notes, however, that most early graduates stay with the district for advanced or college courses.)
Because he's ahead of most other Chenega Bay students, Angaiak does a lot of independent work, much of it from books, which he says gets boring. But, he adds, it's better than enduring what the other kids are learning, and better than his five years in Anchorage, where he remembers having more than thirty students in some classes. Here, he says, "you don't have to sit in a classroom with twenty students and just have the teacher talk to you." Angaiak adds that at his current school, students actually have to learn something to get by.
The Chugach model presents challenges for participants. In 2002, the district introduced an electronic tracking system to help teachers monitor students' progress without drowning in paperwork. Ian Angaiak complains that there are an overwhelming number of standards and that some of the levels take too long to complete. (A revision of the standards will try to correct those obstacles.)
The demands on teacher expertise also are heavy: Jed Palmer points out that he is responsible for teaching ten subjects at four levels each, or the equivalent of forty classes. He has learned to feel more comfortable saying "I don't know" and recruiting students into the hunt for unknown information. His wife and fellow teacher, Nichole Palmer, says the system also requires a lot of self-motivation from kids -- a benefit for some, a struggle for others. She consistently pushes them, she says, but only the students themselves can decide how hard to work, what quality of work to produce, and how fast to progress.
Administrators don't pretend that the Chugach model is perfect, or that it would be ideal in every setting. "People think we've got the golden egg," says Superintendent Robert Crumley. "There is none. There is no magic recipe."
Still, the approach has proven itself, and district educators at all levels say it could work well or better in a larger school district. With more teachers, each one could specialize in certain content areas and levels, rather than trying to cover everything. The reform could be made with little or no change in state policies, Crumley says -- the only accommodation his district needed from the state government was a waiver from tracking Carnegie units, the measure of how much time a student spends studying each subject.
Although Chugach supplements its $5,380 per-pupil allocation with about $1 million per year in grants, the standards-based model does not hinge on finances, says Penn. It represents a change in thinking, he adds, "and it costs nothing to change your thinking."
Crumley has a caveat: "It cannot be done piecemeal." And, yes, it will be hard and frustrating to make such a big change, but education is hard and frustrating anyway, he says, so why not? "Instead of perpetuating a system where we try to force kids to fit, it's much more rewarding to do the hard work when you can see you're making a difference systematically, rather than just trying to put your finger in the dam," says Crumley.
Sampson calls this kind of reform an imperative. "We have to quit pumping kids through our system because they put the time in," he says. "We have to stop allowing teachers to use whatever criteria they want to give a kid a grade. We can't have your third graders all do page fourteen, because they're all over the map -- in any school."
The Chugach model demands a lot of its teachers and, consequently, the district gives them a lot of support. They get thirty days of professional development a year and have a say in what they want to learn. A set of detailed standards -- similar to those used for students -- spell out what is expected of teachers and how they will be assessed. Every year, all Chugach teachers receive an identical performance bonus ($11,000 each this year) based on the average of their evaluations -- a perk Penn says is designed to foster teamwork.
The result is a tight-knit, congenial staff (and not just the ones who are married to each other) focusing their daily efforts on individual needs. The Chugach schools are as different from their conventional, grade-based counterparts as tiny Chenega Bay is from downtown Anchorage -- and not simply because of size.
Penn sums it up with an anecdote from one of his visits to Whittier: He watched a teacher give an assignment. A new kid in town refused to do it, announcing, "I'm just going to take the zero." The boy's classmate leaned over to him and whispered, "Dude, it doesn't work that way here."