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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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