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Can Alaska innovate its way out of education challenges?

March 17, 2021

Every school system wants to see its students succeed. So when Alaska educators see the state rank low in math and reading proficiency, or learn that a high proportion of Alaska high school graduates require remedial coursework in college, it stings.

It’s a “many-faceted quagmire,” said Deputy Commissioner of Education and Early Development Karen Melin, but it’s not insurmountable.

“I strongly believe that the students and the young people across this state are every bit as capable and intelligent and innovative as any group of students across the country,” Melin said.

And innovation, some Alaska educators say, is exactly what it will take for the state to start helping more students get on the path to education and career opportunity — and stay on it.

Starting college already behind

Michael Ulroan is passionate about helping Alaska students prepare for college for one very personal reason: He’s been in their shoes.

Ulroan struggled in developmental courses while earning his engineering degree at the University of Alaska Anchorage, even though he had been a star student at his high school.

“I knew that there was a problem, and the whole time I was thinking that it was my fault, that I could have placed into higher college-level math and engineering courses,” said Ulroan, now the senior director for Acceleration components at the University of Alaska’s Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program. “One evening, I just sat down and realized and looked back at what happened going from secondary education to postsecondary. There is such a big disconnect. It’s literally a huge gap between K-12 and the university, and it shouldn’t be that way.”

In 2017, a review of transcripts found that more than 60 percent of Alaska high school graduates who enrolled at the University of Alaska required what the university system classifies as “developmental” coursework — math at intermediate algebra or below, and English “below written communication.” It’s not a problem that’s unique to the Last Frontier, either. A 2017 Hechinger Report review found that more than a half million students at public universities in 44 states required remedial courses in math or English — even students who had passed high school graduation exams. The cost to U.S. taxpayers is estimated at $7 billion annually.

“It’s such a phenomenal waste of money, and it’s just soul-crushing for the students,” said ANSEP Vice Provost and Founder Dr. Herb Schroeder, one of the authors of the 2017 transcript review.

While Ulroan managed to overcome his struggles and graduate with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering, his is not the typical story. According to University of Alaska data, students who take developmental courses are less likely to graduate with a degree or certificate. University data also shows that, in fiscal year 2018, less than 40 percent of students who enrolled in developmental math or English as freshmen successfully completed a college-level course in those subjects within two years.

For some students, those academic challenges may be rooted in their earliest experiences with English and mathematics, Melin said. Others are impacted by factors that schools can’t control, including students’ well-being and safety at home. And systems of intervention that are strong in the elementary years tend to not be quite as organized in middle and high school, she added.

“They start building this image of themselves as learners when they’re in elementary school,” Melin said. “At some point along the way, they may find a better way. They may find that teacher who gets them on a better path — or they may get derailed.”

The key, Ulroan said, is to get to them before they get off course.

“Many of the programs right now, they are on the bank of the river and trying to rescue students from drowning by providing support,” he said. “(But) what caused them to fall into the river in the first place? Look further up. Catch them before they need saving.”

The challenges of changing the system

Along with early intervention, Melin, Schroeder and Ulroan all say that Alaska will have to get creative to overcome its education challenges — and that can be tough to do.

“The biggest hurdle that I see is a mindset,” Melin said. “Our only frame of reference is the way that we have done it.”

It can be hard to break away from old patterns, she acknowledged, but embracing change will be vital to improving Alaska’s outcomes.

“The positive side of COVID is that it launched us into that, ready or not,” Melin said. “Online learning has been around for years, and correspondence learning before that. That took a whole new place at the table for the last year and now has potential to be an innovation.”

While many students have missed being in school, others have found that learning at home is actually a better environment for them.

“I know parents that have said ‘My kid has taken off like a rocket. We’re never going back,’” Melin said. “But in that same household, they (may) have a student that is not thriving in that. I think the other thing that came out of this is the individuality of the learner. While we’ve given lip service to the fact that all kids are different, this just shone a light on it like never before. And within the same household you can have options.”

It speaks to how achievement can improve simply by pairing the right student to the right program, she added.

“That’s something I think is an innovation that has been kind of relegated to the list: truly discovering how a student learns best and then letting them do that,” Melin said. “And not only letting them do that, but supporting them and the family in that choice. That’s, I think, a big part of it — where you find your community is a big part of success.”

School-within-a-school programs — like Bettye Davis East Anchorage High School’s School-Within-a-School and Elitnaurvik Within East — have been around for decades, but Alaska schools are finding new ways to use them. Lathrop High School’s Innovations Academy, for example, was established in 2018 to provide students who are falling behind a way to complete an individualized academic program, working at their own pace. And career and technical education and work-based learning opportunities can be used to help students explore and discover potential career paths.

“That is not really a brand-new innovation breaking out of the box, but it is something that is spreading,” Melin said.

A whole new approach to high school

For Schroeder and Ulroan, it’s not enough to simply reimagine the K-12 experience; they instead developed a program that helps students transition to college by incorporating secondary education seamlessly into the university system. ANSEP’s Acceleration Academy offers students the opportunity to attend UAA full-time as high school students, taking regular college courses and supported by a community of peers and mentors.

It’s a completely different way to approach high school, and Ulroan said it works for two reasons: First, it softens the stark transition from high school to college so students don’t have to adjust to college life and college academics all at once. Second, it wipes out any potential inconsistencies between what high schools teach students and what universities expect them to have learned, so there are no surprises when they try to place into a college-level course.

“With Acceleration Academy, we completely eliminate that uncertainty of ‘What math are they really taking?’ and have them enroll into university math courses the moment they enter high school,” Ulroan said.

Schroeder and Ulroan said they initially encountered pushback from some educators, administrators and state officials when they began presenting their idea for a high school/college hybrid program. Skeptics wondered whether high school students were prepared to be successful in college courses, or if it was really a good thing for young people to be graduating early and entering the workforce at age 20, as Acceleration Academy students are able to do.

“I was told that the students would not be emotionally ready to handle that kind of pressure, because of brain development theory,” Schroeder said. “I believe in brain development theory, but we don’t even know what the upper limit is for our kids. They surprise us every day. These are just regular kids — these are not special students or anything.”

In the years since Acceleration Academy launched its full-time program, Ulroan said, those early concerns have been assuaged. This August, Acceleration Academy will expand into Bethel, and after the success of the program’s first all-online semester, Ulroan is also working on a structure for students to enroll via distance delivery and still take advantage of ANSEP’s support systems. The goal is to have the online option available to any student in the state who wants it, possibly as soon as fall 2021.

The best of both worlds

One of the students thriving in Acceleration Academy’s unusual program is Eden Hopson.

Eden, 16, would be a junior right now if she had stayed enrolled at Service High School. Instead, she transferred to ANSEP after her freshman year, and now she has enough credits to graduate from high school almost a full year early. At her current pace, she will finish high school already having earned about 60 college credits that count toward a baccalaureate degree.

After spending a year at Service and getting a taste of the traditional high school experience, Eden said she’s happy with the decision she made to transfer to Acceleration Academy’s community-focused college setting.

“It’s a different dynamic,” Eden said. “You have a lot more freedom with the way you study, with the way you are learning.”

College coursework has been more challenging, but she has performed better in the classroom, said mom Joanna Hopson.

“She wasn’t being challenged in the traditional high school,” Joanna said. “She would procrastinate ‘til 4 in the morning and then turn it in that day and still excel. That was not OK with me, so I knew I needed to find a route to push her a little more.”

Eden said she feels a stronger sense of community in Acceleration Academy, but she also stays connected to her neighborhood school. She still plays basketball and competes in the Native Youth Olympics for Service and is able to attend dances and other activities with her former classmates.

“I think I got out of high school everything I perfectly wanted to,” Eden said. “I still get to go to games, go to practices. I get to have that little glimpse of high school.”

Joanna added that the accelerated course of study means Eden will have options to take her time in college if she wants — try different subjects, play sports, study abroad. It’s a good fit for Eden’s personality, she said, while her 11-year-old son might do better in a technical program when he gets to high school.

“I wish it was there when I was younger,” Joanna said. “It’s such a good opportunity for an alternative way to look at school, to really kind of tailor things to students, to allow them to push themselves and not just kind of walk through the motions — just like King Career Center is there for certain students, and I think that’s what our son would thrive in.”

Connecting education to a career

Along with its Acceleration Academy and college programs, ANSEP has offerings for high school, middle school and now elementary school students — “from kindergarten through Ph.D,” Ulroan said.

He added that he doesn’t know of any other academic program in Alaska that covers quite that range, but there are starting to be more options for students who want to get a head start on their postsecondary education. The Lower Kuskokwim School District offers a dual credit program for high school students enrolled in college courses, and Anchorage students now have the option of Alaska Middle College School, which offers a hybrid college program for high school juniors and seniors.

Like Melin, Schroeder stressed the value of helping students connect the dots from their education to their career goals.

“We inspire those kids early,” Schroeder said. “One of the things I always say is ‘People don’t decide to become a scientist sitting in a trigonometry class.’ It’s much more fun to go out and actually do science.”

Acceleration Academy compliments college coursework with hands-on activities and regular interaction with professionals working in a variety of fields so students can see how their classwork translates to potential jobs.

“I talk a lot about career visioning,” Schroeder said. “That’s what the hands-on activities are all about. You actually get to see and meet scientists and engineers, then work on projects together.”

It’s a very different, high-intensity approach to high school and college — but these educators say thinking outside the box is exactly what Alaska needs to do to help students thrive.

“I think we have just begun to scratch the surface in innovation,” Melin said. “The more effectively we can shift our mindsets and think broadly about what public education can be is key — how willing we are to shift our view of it and expand our view and think differently.”

This story was originally published in the Anchorage Daily News.

Since 1995, the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program has helped set thousands of Alaska students on a career path to leadership by providing inspiration, guidance and opportunity. Through the full-time Acceleration Academy, students and their families can save $75,000 or more in college costs by earning two years or more worth of college credits. Additionally, by eliminating remediation, students save money and the social cost of failure is reduced, while the State of Alaska saves about $37,000 per full-time Acceleration Academy graduate. Since its inception in 2015, full-time Acceleration Academy students have completed more than 3,000 college credits, collectively.