Equity for All Kids: Alaska's Approach

Noatak, a small village only accessible by plane in Alaska’s arctic tundra, is remote but its students are not isolated. With ease, kids log into a video-teleconference system and learn trigonometry from a teacher who lives and works in Kotzebue, about 30 minutes away by plane.

Recruiting teachers to this village – and many of the Alaskan villages that are “off-the-roads” – is difficult so educators must be creative in meeting students’ needs.

This is what delivering an equitable education looks like in Alaska.

In February, state education leaders put a stake in the ground: Together, we outlined 10 commitments state leaders can take to ensure educational equity for all kids in this country. From focusing on equity in strategic plans to analyzing funding formulas and disciplinary policies, the commitments are comprehensive and challenging yet necessary if we want all kids to succeed in college, careers and life.

Perhaps most important among these commitments is the recognition that every state has gaps it must address, but these challenges will look different based on the state’s context, policy landscape and demographic makeup. That is why it is so critical for the education chief in each state to lead on equity. This became even clearer to me on a recent trip to Alaska to visit schools with the Education Commissioner Michael Johnson. We visited six communities in three different parts of the state. It took three days to travel to all of these schools because of Alaska’s geography. Even though every school we visited is part of one state and one public education system, the students in these communities face vastly different challenges.

In Wasilla, about an hour north of Anchorage, I met Kendra. As she describes it, she doesn’t live alone but she does have to support herself. She is about to graduate from high school, but just a couple years ago, she was on the verge of dropping out of school. In her community, Kendra and other students have access to technology and many options, but the school she was attending wasn’t relevant to her. At the time, it seemed easier to drop out and find a job to support herself. Then, she found Mat-Su Central, a unique school in the district focused on personalized learning and helping kids design their own coursework. Kendra is now thriving at Mat-Su Central because she is able to work with a counselor and create a schedule that meets her needs. She plans to go on to study to become an EMT next year.

In Noatak, that small village in the arctic tundra, I met Davidann. She is Alaska Native and born and raised in Noatak. Davidann is among the students who take a trigonometry course through video-teleconferencing. Because of this and other opportunities, Davidann is prepared to graduate and head to college in Fairbanks next year. She wants to become a teacher.

These are just two examples I witnessed in my travels across the state. The travel and distance between villages in Alaska is a unique challenge of what Commissioner Johnson must consider as he thinks about providing equitable education to students, no matter where they live or how accessible it is. Equity is at the forefront of all his conversations: How does he make sure a kid in Anchorage gets the same opportunities as a kid in Noatak?

Just consider this: If Alaska was a country, it’d be the 17th largest country in the world. About half of Alaska’s student population attends school in and around the largest city of Anchorage, but the rest attend schools in towns and villages across the state – many of which are only accessible by plane, boat or snow machine.

Because of this, Alaska has to leverage technology to meet the needs of all kids and ensure the students in more remote or isolated communities, many of whom are Alaska Native, do not lack access to the same opportunities as kids in Anchorage or Juneau. One way the state is taking this on is through distance learning, and mostly video-teleconferencing. This allows schools to offer high-quality teaching in parts of the state where you may not get those teachers to live full time.

This is how Alaska is working to achieve equity in education for all of its students. Through our Leading for Equity commitments, every state chief is working toward this same goal. The strategies will look different from state to state, but in the end, we all want the same things for our students: the best education possible.

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