Preparing Alaska’s Students for Today’s Job Market

From my work in education, I know there is a lot of talent and potential in Alaska’s students. Our job as educators is to prepare them for life after school, so they can help make the world a better place. This is no easy task with an increasingly competitive job market. This is why it is critical we arm our youth with the skills they’ll need to be successful in their careers. I’m fortunate enough to work for a company that recognizes this need. At GCI, we’re committed to hiring and retaining talent in Alaska, and have created a Workforce Development program that ensures students are ready to tackle the job market upon graduation.

GCI Workforce Development program - externship

We recognize that these kinds of programs need to begin in middle school by introducing students to STEM careers and extends through graduate, military and technical school recruitment programs. Although the program focuses on technology jobs, we also have initiatives that support logistics, business management and finance careers.

Below are a few of our Workforce Development initiatives:

  • Career Pathways – GCI introduces students to careers in telecom, IT and business through curriculum assistance, guest speakers, on-site tours and teacher training opportunities.
  • Internship – These are paid four-month internships during spring, summer and fall. Interns are provided an ongoing work plan to keep them engaged and learning throughout the internship and work in a variety of areas within the company, from finance to wireless engineering.
  • Externship –Teachers can also learn how to prepare students for STEM careers through a two-week immersive program at GCI. After the program, teachers can support their students as they design their career pathways.
  • Scholarships –GCI’s United Utilities, Inc. (UUI), awards scholarships to graduating high school students living in rural areas served by UUI, including Tanana, Whittier and Ruby. The scholarships are aimed at helping Alaska youth further their education and launch their careers. Since the scholarship’s inception, $6 million worth of funds have been awarded. GCI recently announced it will award $300,000 in scholarships to Alaska schools for the 2017-2018 school year.
  • Recent Graduate Program – GCI hires outstanding candidates for a year, with the expectation of finding a regular, full-time position for each participant. Graduates of a technical school, college or university as well as the military are eligible for this program, which allows them to try up to four positions to find a perfect career for them at GCI.

These programs represent GCI’s commitment to creating a workforce pathway for Alaska’s students. We understand that for this to succeed, we must continue to form strong partnerships with statewide K12, vocational tech and university institutions. By supporting tech-sector career development and encouraging Alaska students to pursue STEM-based careers, we believe we can create a robust future Alaska workforce. You can learn more about our career development programs by visiting www.gci.com/careers.

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Innovation Is Happening in Our Backyard

During my career, I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to work with a number of school districts, and I’m in awe of what these students and teachers have been able to achieve. Because of the geographic challenges that many schools in Alaska face, technology plays an important role in collaboration. From designing systems for forecasting an earthquake to documenting coastal erosion, the innovation coming out of classrooms in Alaska is remarkable. Below are just a few of the amazing examples of innovation happening in our backyard. We must continue to support these efforts.

Kodiak Island High School

Kodiak Island School District has done some amazing things leveraging the talents of its students with the support of Superintendent Stewart McDonald. Kodiak high school students have been collaborating with leading scientists in the public and private sector to design and implement real-world solutions to current Arctic problems. These efforts help empower students and communities and stimulate interest in STEM education.

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For example, in 2015, Kodiak high school students designed and built a real-time earthquake forecasting system based on the theory that magnetic field anomalies may precede earthquakes. Students entered that project in the NASA World Wind Europa Challenge and took first place, beating out domestic and international universities. The team also received a perfect score of 100 from two judges (also a first). The students’ continuing research is now relied on by researchers around the world.

Kodiak high school students are also currently designing small satellites that will be launched from weather balloons into high altitude/low earth orbits in partnership with NASA, the Kodiak Launch Complex and Alaska Aerospace.

It is pretty impressive to think that students in Alaska are impacting NASA research!

UAF Upward Bound and the Alaska National Science Foundation Experimental Program

The Modern Blanket Toss is a three-year pilot project of University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Upward Bound and the Alaska National Science Foundation Experimental Program aimed at stimulating competitive research. As part of the project, students from five rural Alaska high schools learned about Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and geographic information systems through after-school activities. They received immersive training during a residential summer program at UAF and used drones for mapping projects to benefit their communities.

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Students in Shishmaref have been documenting sea ice movement as well as coastal erosion in their community before and after storms. This research is highly relevant to citizen empowerment and has a direct impact on the community. In August 2016, residents of Shishmaref voted to relocate their entire community inland due to coastal erosion and climate change.

Students in Nikiski and Chefornak have also worked to map methane pockets in nearby lakes and rivers.  Bethel students have looked for rotten ice on the Kuskokwim River. And Seward high schoolers made 3D maps of inaccessible mountain valleys to chart their potential to contribute to flooding.

In a state with rough terrain, UAV mapping is a valuable asset.

LKSD State-of-the-Art Distance Learning Program

The Lower Kuskokwim School District includes 23 communities spread throughout Southwest Alaska with access only by plane. With such a large terrain to cover, ensuring quality education is challenging. With the help of Superintendent Dan Walker, the district implemented the state’s largest distance education program through video conferencing that links a system of 28 schools in a rural geographical area that spans 22,000 square miles. Each student has direct access to the teaching studio in Bethel and other schools within the district so that regardless of location, students receive instruction from highly qualified teachers in math, science, Alaska native languages and more. This has the ability to transform lives by giving all students equal opportunity. It is also helpful that the schools are able to share resources across the district.

Sitka School District

The Sitka School District has made amazing progress in connecting its students over the last few years and catapulted itself as a leader in innovation. The district is part of The League of Innovative Schools, a coalition of 87 forward-thinking school districts across the country, and the only district represented in Alaska. Superintendent Dr. Mary Wegner was instrumental in revamping the district’s technology infrastructure and enabling 100 percent of students to be connected to high-speed internet to leverage digital teaching tools. Digital technologies have created new ways of making things and Sitka High School has been in the forefront of bringing these new manufacturing technologies to the State of Alaska. The Fabrication and Design Lab (Fab Lab) provides students with the opportunity to use state-of-the-art equipment and digital technology to build and construct their designs.

Sitka - Maker SpacerAdditionally, in collaboration with community partners like the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, the Arts, Culture, and Technology Standards and Curriculum program (ACT) at Sitka School District integrates ACT skills and mindset into academic content throughout the district.

I look forward to continuing to see the creativity coming out of students in Alaska. Now more than ever, it is critical that we continue to provide opportunities and access to the digital tools that make this innovation possible. Students in Alaska have made it clear what they can do when given the right tools.

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CILC Unveiling Exciting Advancements in Connecting Rural Classrooms with World-Class Learning Experience

New partnerships and global initiatives will bring exciting changes in 2016.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of wonderful organizations and people over the years. The Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC) is one of those organizations that is working on some exciting new initiatives aimed at eliminating barriers to education and providing a holistic global experience for both students and teachers. CILC helps develop, support and evaluate interactive video conferencing and facilitate distance learning. The organization constantly applies innovative technologies to connect rural students with access to world-class education experiences.

CILCCILC is offering easier access to its content with a one-click connect function. One-click connect utilizes cloud-based video, requiring only an Internet connection allowing more classrooms to participate. In the past, 95 percent of rural classrooms were limited due to lack of equipment and the high cost of bandwidth. Now schools can utilize the tools they already have, such as laptops, whiteboards and projectors to connect with content providers.

In addition to improving access to content, CILC is partnering with new organizations to expand its content offering. A group of CILC’s content providers have collaborated to form the Pinnacle Education Collaborative (PEC), which focuses on expanding educational opportunities for students through product launches and events. This group will collaborate on festivals throughout the year to form a personal learning network of their own and create joint proposals for conferences and grant opportunities. Schools will benefit the most, as these providers will offer their programs at a steeply discounted rate.

There is also a shift toward teaching students and teachers how to be global citizens. CILC is partnering with NEPRIS.com to connect teachers to career and technical professionals’ clearinghouse. Similar to CILC, NEPRIS utilizes professionals as their content providers and connects classrooms to professionals in a variety of fields. Additionally, CILC is partnering with Flat Connections out of Australia to develop and cultivate global education opportunities for both students and teachers. Teachers will have the opportunity to become certified in global education by learning how to create meaningful educational experiences through connecting their students to other global classrooms.

The future of education rests on the ability for students to connect with the limitless education opportunities throughout the world and programs like one-click connect make this a reality for many schools. CILC is committed to helping bridge the gap between content providers and schools to provide a robust, globally minded service to students across the United States.

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Bandwidth Needs Growing and Schools Struggle to Keep Up

Only 15 percent of school districts can currently meet the FCC’s recommendation of one megabit per second per student. That’s according to an article recently published in THE Journal by CoSN’s CEO Keith Kruger and project director Marie Bjerede. Is this goal too lofty? Do schools need that much bandwidth? The answer is, yes and the need will only increase. For example, in rural communities of Alaska two out of three schools (66%) rely on broadband to provide their students with educational opportunities through distance learning, which only increases bandwidth needs. But as the 15 percent shows, this is not just an Alaska issue, it is a national education issue.

We must recognize school districts’ needs across the country and help them meet the demands of their students. If we don’t, the opportunities afforded to those districts who can meet the demand will greatly surpass those other districts and put students at a disadvantage, creating a more prominent digital divide.

So what are districts to do?

In many cases carefully monitoring networks to see use trends is smart. CoSN’s CEO and project director said in their recent article that it is not uncommon to see “growth of 60 percent every year.” This means that districts must be prepared to continue to add bandwidth each year. With more and more opportunities becoming available for students like learning analytics, collaboration with video conferencing and online assessment that require Internet connection, the demand increases.

The advancements in education are exciting, and as education leaders it is our responsibility to help prepare for this digital future. I’m excited to see the dialogue between education leaders about the digital transformation as we all work together to deliver high speed broadband to students across the country regardless of location.

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Residential Programs like STAR Increase Opportunities and Improve Graduation for Students in Rural Alaska

STAR-northwestRegional residential programs have evolved in Alaska over the last few decades, and educators and parents are starting to see the benefit, especially in rural Alaska. The Northwest Arctic Borough School District (NWABSD) recently opened the Star of the Northwest Magnet School, also known as STAR, in Kotzebue.  STAR is a comprehensive residential secondary and post-secondary school for Alaska high school students statewide.

The opening of the school is the culmination of a project designed to increase opportunities for students in rural Alaska. As NWABSD Superintendent Dr. Annmarie O’Brien stated, “The vision of the NWABSD School Board and regional leadership, coupled with 8 years of focused effort have resulted in this opportunity for Alaska students. This is an advancement of our district vision, ‘To be a leader in Pre-K-14 education based on student achievement and graduation rates.” Students in the school will graduate from high school and complete up to two years of additional academic and vocational technical education, leading to an associate of arts degree and/or industry certifications.

This movement towards regional residential programs for rural Alaska has been in part due to the work of Dr. O’Brien, the NWABSD school board, and Mr. Jerry Covey.  I have had the privilege and honor of knowing both Annmarie and Jerry, both of whom are great friends and advocates for education in Alaska. Jerry is the former state commissioner of education, former superintendent in the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, and currently serves as a consultant and advisor to many districts across the state, as well as organizations involved with education reform. His focus for the past few years has been on rural education needs, spearheading a study.

In the 1970’s Alaska built about 130 high schools in rural Alaska to deliver education to all students. “However, what we have learned from this education system, over time is that because of the size and remoteness of small rural high schools, it is difficult to offer the same opportunities that are available to schools on the highway system,” said Jerry.

In 2000, a few school districts created both long and short-term residential high schools. “What we found was that these rural schools produced results; the achievements were higher and the graduation rate was higher,” said Jerry. Because of his constant focus on education, he began pushing for changes in legislation five years ago to pursue the idea of creating opportunities for students in residential schools.

“The benefit of a regional residential high school program to students is great,” said Jerry. “They have access to so much more in a richer learning environment.”

The STAR of the Northwest is a collaborative partnership between the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, Alaska Technical Center and Chukchi College. The school will focus on preparing students for in-demand, high paying careers currently available in rural Alaska, statewide and beyond, with four career pathways to choose from: education, healthcare, resource development, and culinary arts.

“Every student deserves and must have the opportunity to access quality education,” said Jerry. “By 2020, 60 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education.”

But as any educator knows, improving the rural Alaska education system is a marathon, not a sprint. Our communities have benefited from improved access and distance learning capabilities, that have helped close the gap, but there is still much to do. A residential program like STAR aimed at educating students beyond high school is on the right path. I have enjoyed working with Jerry and Annmarie on a shared mission to ensure that students across Alaska have the same opportunities as other parts of the country. I look forward to seeing continued progress in our state as we work to close the “opportunity” divide.

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Lower Kuskokwim School District Makes History!

AdvancED Systems Accreditation is a highly regarded achievement in education and The Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD) just made history by becoming the first school district to receive systems accreditation in Alaska. AdvancED is the global leader in providing continuous improvement and accreditation services to more than 32,000 institutions worldwide. LKSD earned accreditation for a variety of reasons. Specifically, the review team identified three powerful practices.

Commitment to Vision and Mission

driversready!The review team recognized the school board and school district’s commitment to its vision and mission, both of which ensure an education for all students that is bilingual, culturally appropriate and effective. The majority of people in Southwest Alaska are Yup’ik and Cup’ig and the district has many programs that demonstrate respect and celebration for local Alaska Native culture.

State of the Art Technology Infrastructure

Additionally, the team of accreditors noted that LKSD had a very impressive state-of-the-art technology infrastructure that supports a variety of online instructional platforms and links a system of 28 schools in a rural geographical area that spans 22,000 square miles. LKSD is about as remote as school districts come. Its 23 communities are spread throughout Southwest Alaska with access only by plane. LKSD is the size of West Virginia and the 4,000 student are spread throughout the community in 28 schools ranging from 15 to 520 students. With such a large terrain to cover, ensuring quality education is challenging. But in partnership with GCI SchoolAccess, LKSD implemented the state’s largest distance education program through video conferencing. How does it work? Each student has direct access to the teaching studio in Bethel and other schools within the district so that regardless of location, students receive instruction from highly qualified teachers in math, science, Alaska native languages and more. This has the ability to transform lives by giving all students equal opportunity. It is also helpful that the schools are able to share resources across the district.

Additionally, LKSD offers extensive professional development for staff members throughout the year over their distance learning network. These include interactive, live and recorded sessions that originate out of the district office teaching studios presented by content area specialist from the district.
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Members of the External Review team observed several students in village schools using laptop computers for distance learning and had an opportunity to experience the power of the video-conferencing component during interviews with principals, staff and community members of village schools. Video conference and online classroom features are used to create cross-district virtual classrooms for single subjects in cases where a critical student mass is not available to populate classes in village settings.

Employee Recruitment and Retention

Finally, LKSD has developed and implemented an effective employee recruitment and retention process that has resulted in one of the lowest turnover rates among all rural Alaska school systems. According to the district, they focus on states with effective teacher preparation programs that offer less competitive salaries and benefits. LKSD offers competitive salaries, district housing at modest rental rates, an attractive benefit package, extensive in-house professional development opportunities, which include advanced study through partnerships with post-secondary institutions such as the University of Alaska Anchorage, and the lure of living and working in Alaska.

It is an incredible honor for LKSD to receive accreditation and is a testament to the hard work of the entire school district. Assistant Superintendent Dan Walker said the district wanted systems accreditation to have outside perspective on how the district was doing and prove that a district in rural Alaska the size of West Virginia could compete with other districts in the United States.

Congrats to LKSD!

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Congrats to Sitka School District and Dr. Mary Wegner!

FullSizeRender-wegnorIt is not every day that a local education leader from Alaska is honored at the White House! But Dr. Mary Wegner, superintendent of the Sitka School District, was selected by the U.S. Department of Education as one of 100 top school leaders nationwide to participate in the first-ever National ConnectED Superintendents Summit. The conference brought together school officials from across the country to share ideas on the best way to leverage technology in schools, and Dr. Wegner was recognized for her leadership in bringing digital learning to Sitka School District. This was no small feat.

As President Obama said during the ConnectED Superintendents Summit, “The world’s information is just a click away, it demands we bring our schools and libraries into the 21st century.” Dr. Wegner did just that. Sitka School District had a very special set of challenges, including its remote location and lack of roads. The district had slow old wiring, no wireless network and only about 3 Mbps of bandwidth. When technology broke, it was rarely fixed. About 6 years ago, students approached the school board and said “you aren’t preparing us for our future.” A year later, Dr. Wegner was brought in and played a major role in revamping the school’s technology. “Bandwidth was the biggest barrier,” said Dr. Wegner. GCI brought in fiber and by working with GCI SchoolAccess, changes started to fall into place. The district now has high-speed internet and can leverage digital teaching tools.

Dr. Wegner and the Sitka School District were able to accomplish exactly what the ConnectED summit is all about. “Kids who come from very, very little – if we can give them a chance in life through education, they can break through that. The divide between the haves and have nots can’t be around educational opportunity –it can’t be around access to technology – this has to be the way to level the playing field for everyone and drive excellence,” said Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education at the summit.

Over the next 5 years, the plan for ConnectED is to close the technology gap and connect 99 percent of schools to high-speed broadband. Right now, less than 40 percent have access to high-speed internet. “In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, the least we can do is make sure our schools have access,” said President Obama. And he’s right, to prepare our children and ensure that the United States can compete at a global level, we must provide adequate access to everyone, regardless of geographic location.

Thank you, Mary Wegner for doing your part to help empower students in Alaska!

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