Tag Archives: Alaska

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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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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Advancing Digital Teaching and Learning in Alaska

Kodiak robotsLast year, Alaska Governor Sean Parnell announced a three-year initiative to create three to four demonstration projects, showcasing efforts to bring school districts together to provide shared teaching and learning experiences through the use of synchronous and asynchronous learning modalities. The Alaska Digital Teaching initiative, passed by the Alaska legislature, created an application process, where more than 40 percent of the school districts submitted their ideas and projects. This  initiative is designed to  provide examples for delivering high-quality interactive distance courses to middle and high school students; increasing student access to a diverse array of courses; empowering  teachers to reach beyond their own classrooms; training teachers; and expanding school districts’ infrastructure, technology and staffing.

Grants under the Alaska Digital Teaching Initiative were recently announced with GCI SchoolAccess customer Kodiak Island Borough School District (KIBSD) among the list of recipients. This grant is intended to increase student engagement and academic performance in core content areas with an emphasis in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); increase life-literacy skills; enhance and expand online delivery models; and create a network of well-trained online educators. KIBSD will partner with the Pribilof, Lower Kuskokwim, Lower Yukon, Northwest Arctic, Lake and Peninsula, Nome, St. Mary’s and Annette Island school districts on this opportunity.

For years, Alaska has been a pioneer in digital teaching and learning. Today, local schools are integrating technology in the classroom to provide their students and educators with incredible learning opportunities. From a student broadcasting team that delivers live reports on site from the Iditarod sled dog race, to a live satellite link up with astronauts in space, to simply learning calculus from a teacher in another school district miles away, digital teaching and learning enables students to receive an education that is on par with – if not better than – students in more urban environments.

Using a combination of technologies and a one-school concept, KIBSD has transformed from a district that was limited by its remote and rural location to one that is thriving because of it. Its eight remote schools serve between 10 and 30, K-12 students each with one or two teachers in single buildings. KIBSD schools are not connected by road, and the majority of the schools can only be reached by air and use satellite for their Internet and video conferencing network.  Now, it is not only one of the most technologically advanced districts in the state of Alaska, but also students’ scores on standardized tests are increasing. In addition, all students in the district are benefitting from the continually growing curriculum provided over video conferencing, which now includes languages, music and sports, and the technological advancements to support it.

Most recently, KIBSD implemented mobile video conferencing using a robot. This technology has brought remote administrators to the office, allowed students in remote villages to fully participate in regular classes, provided professional development to teachers from out-of-state trainers, facilitated the coaching of village sports teams and much more. These robots bring mobility, proximity and body language not possible with regular distance delivery options.

KIBSD has shown that by taking advantage of the opportunities presented through digital teaching and learning, rural communities can become 21st-century learning environments, regardless of their location. Video conferencing, broadcasting, video podcasts and transportable Internet have revolutionized the way students in rural communities learn and interact with the world. Using these tools educators can open doors to new content and develop the skills that will help students succeed in today’s increasingly global society.

You can view some brief examples of how digital teaching and learning is used in Alaska to improve education now. GCI SchoolAccess will continue working with KIBSD and the other school districts to explore synchronous opportunities to advance digital teaching and learning in Alaska.

How are you using online learning to improve education in your school? Let us know in the comments below. You can also chat with me on Twitter at @plloyd.

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Don’t Overlook Alaska in E-Rate Reform

I had the recent opportunity to hear about the results of EducationSuperHighway’s analysis of E-Rate spending at the FCC’s E-Rate Workshop last month. EducationSuperHighway’s findings demonstrate how Alaska remains an outlier that warrants special considerations when it comes to E-Rate reform. Below, I compare EducationSuperHighway’s insights with the reality in Alaska:

Insight 1: We face an urgent challenge to ensure that our students do not fall further behind

EducationSuperHighway notes that 40 million students lack adequate access to high-speed broadband, and that poor and rural districts were more likely to fall in this category. This is indeed true for Alaska. 79% of the districts I work with do not meet today’s connectivity standards.

Insight 2: Schools are not meeting the ConnectED goals because high-speed broadband is not affordable

This is certainly true for Alaska. Schools that have more money/students and are closer to connectivity sources are the ones that are meeting the ConnectED goals, leaving behind those poorer, smaller populated, rural schools – like those in Alaska. Indeed, the most isolated schools are often the most expensive to serve.

Insight 3: Schools that are able to afford high-speed broadband provide an actionable roadmap to enable every school to meet the ConnectED goals

The actionable roadmap suggested by EducationSuperHighway – migrating to fiber, purchasing to scale, taking advantage of competition and taking location initiative – admittedly disregards the smallest schools and underestimates the cost of migrating to fiber in remote, rural communities. Rural Alaskan schools are hundreds of miles from the connectivity source with little hope of a real fiber solution in the foreseeable future due to the climate, terrain, permitting and rights of way issues, and the dearth of roads. Satellite and microwave middle-mile solutions are expensive to deploy and maintain in remote Alaska. Thus, rural Alaskan schools cannot expect middle-mile solutions at urban fiber rates and will continue to rely on significant E-Rate support to educate our children. No amount of competition or large-scale purchases can change that reality. The unaffordability exists even when school districts come together to aggregate purchasing power and in competitive environments, which they frequently do.

Insight 4: 96% of schools could meet today’s internet access and WAN standards if the FCC focused the E-rate program on broadband, but meeting the five-year ConnectED goals will likely require a combination of lower prices and more resources

We wholeheartedly agree with this insight. But what about the 4% that can’t meet today’s Internet access and WAN standards, let alone the ConnectED goals? Those are the schools in remote, rural Alaska that I’ve been referring to. As the FCC considers E-Rate reform this summer, they must not forget this 4%, for whom Internet connections at school are often the best connection available in their communities.

To ensure that these remote, rural communities continue to get the available connectivity that they need, the FCC must prioritizing some funding requests over others. My employer, General Communications, Inc. (GCI), has proposed an E-Rate “Priority 0” that would help guarantee E-Rate support for connectivity to rural-remote communities in Alaska and the lower 48 before Priority 1/2 funding is disbursed. Rural-remote school districts spend more on transport, because they are the furthest away from Tier 1 Internet POPs. This high-cost service does not exist for most urban and suburban schools and libraries. As previously noted, rural communities disproportionately lack adequate Internet connectivity and need more support for middle-mile infrastructure to remote locations, not less. Establishing Priority 0 support for distant connections from a rural community to the Internet will help to ensure that these communities are not disproportionately affected by a revision or elimination of the Priority categories or the distance component of the per-student/patron cap, therefore reducing the anti-rural nature of some E-Rate reform proposals.

We urge the FCC to continue the current E-Rate program in Alaska, in addition to creating financial opportunity for build-out of terrestrial infrastructure for Alaska.

Are your school’s needs being met through E-Rate? Please share in the comments. You can also chat with me on Twitter at @plloyd.

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Connecting Students in Lower Kuskokwim School District with High Quality Learning

Dan-walker-awardMy good friend Dan Walker was recently honored as one of Education Week’s 2014 Leaders to Learn From for his outstanding work connecting the students at Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD) with high quality learning programs. Dan understands the technological challenges associated with providing quality education to 4,000 students spread out over 23 small, remote communities throughout Bethel, Alaska – 400 air miles west of Anchorage on the coast of the Bering Sea. As the Assistant Superintendent for LKSD, Dan has spent the vast majority of his career using technology to solve education problems through STEM programs, including being an advocate for his students in the Alaska Native Science, Engineering and Math program.

LKSD is roughly the size of West Virginia or Ohio with only 4,000 K-12 students in 27 schools, ranging in size from 15 to 520 students. Its 23 communities are accessible only by plane with a population that is 95% Yu’Pik. Approximately 90% of the population lives at or below poverty level, and many students are largely deficient in English and math.

In partnership with GCI SchoolAccess, Dan has implemented the state’s largest distance education program through video conferencing to ensure that all students across the district have access to the same educational opportunities and that their education is on par with students in more urban environments. Each school has direct access to the teaching studio in Bethel and fellow schools within the district so they can receive instruction from highly qualified teachers in math, science, Alaska native language, and more. Students from LKSD participate in district-wide programs and nationwide competitions without having to leave their homes in remote villages. These programs include eJournalism, a summer film academy, a Yu’Pik eBook creation program, the FIRST LEGO League, Robotics League competitions, and more.

Dan works to secure funding through grants to provide students with computers and other technology tools they – and their families and neighbors – would not otherwise have access to. He began the first one-to-one laptop program in LKSD, eventually having a laptop for all students in 5th through 12th grades. Dan has also worked to improve the technology infrastructure to allow continual advancement for LKSD’s technology program. He moved the district from satellite-based Internet connectivity to a terrestrial system that has greatly increased the reliability of Internet access for all students and staff in LKSD.

Dan’s work has had both quantitative and qualitative impacts on the students in his district. Students’ math proficiency and test scores have improved, partly leading to additional students qualifying for state scholarship programs. In addition, traditionally shy children are creating their own study groups over videoconference, formerly struggling students are making a connection between their education and future careers, and students who revert to the traditional subsistence ways of the Yu’Pik culture have turned to more advanced technology to hunt, fish, and gather.

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Do you know of any schools that are delivering high quality learning to students despite technological challenges? Please share your comments. You can also chat with me on Twitter at @plloyd.

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