Saturday, October 23, 2004

Alaskan schools, Princeton sharing

By Anna Guido
Enquirer contributor

SHARONVILLE - In the Bering Strait School District in northwest Alaska, classes are canceled in one school if a bowhead whale is landed, so students can help bring the catch ashore and divide it.

Bering Strait School District:
• Located on the northwest coast of Alaska, on the mainland and on several islands around Norton Sound.
• Serves 15 K-12 schools in 15 villages and is spread out over an area about the size of the state of Minnesota.
• Enrollment at each school ranges from 45 to 210.
• Total district enrollment: 1,700.
• Primary access to each school/community is via small aircraft or helicopter
• Much of the local economy is based on traditional subsistence hunting and gathering, with the schools being the largest single employer in most of the communities.
"Whale Days" are built into the school's calendar.

In Greater Cincinnati, classes are canceled in the Princeton City School District when it snows too much and roads become impassable.

"Snow Days" here also are built into the calendar, and usually prompt a day of sledding for students.

Although they're thousands of miles apart - and equally distant culturally - the challenges of student achievement have brought the two districts together.

Mike White, Princeton's testing director, will fly today to Unalakleet, Alaska, where he'll spend a week with Bering Strait teachers and administrators, sharing his knowledge on instruction strategies at Princeton.

"He's going to tell them how we're meeting the challenges and what's working for us," said Chris Gramke, director of communications for Princeton schools.

White's work is independent of his job with Princeton, a district of 5,931 students. For five years, through the Denver-based, non-profit Center for Performance Assessment, White has visited schools in 25 states to help them with their assessment and achievement.

In Unalakleet, White said, he'll also talk about Princeton's focused-instruction strategy of "teaching the important stuff, staying focused, making sure kids have learned, and helping those who haven't."

In turn, White will bring back to Princeton - and to other schools where he is a consultant - success stories from Bering Strait.

Among those stories:

• How some Bering Strait schools this year achieved the best standardized testing results in years.

• How the district had its lowest teacher turnover in 12 years.

The low turnover, said Greg Johnson, director of curriculum and instruction at Bering Strait, "is quite a coup, given the remoteness of our communities and the fact that the majority of our teachers come from outside Alaska."

In a district spread so far and wide, there are many challenges for teachers and administrators, Johnson said.

"Still, we see very encouraging progress and look forward to the insights and assistance individuals like Dr. White can offer our staff."

White is among a group of professionals who will be leading workshops at the Alaskan school district's annual conference, including presenters from the Reinventing Schools Coalition in Alaska.


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