By DAN FOX
Recently-released results from a survey have ranked Skagway’s School District as the top district in the State of Alaska for 2018.
The survey was performed by Niche, a group that analyzes public data sets to produce “report cards” for individual schools and school districts across the country.
Data sets include information from the U.S. Department of Education, school reviews and survey responses.
Skagway School District’s overall rank from Niche was B+; several individual schools in Alaska did receive higher ranks, such as Bayshore Elementary in the Anchorage School District. Some of the other districts from the survey had students numbering in the tens of thousands. Superintendent Dr. Josh Coughran said he was glad to be compared on the same metrics as larger schools, that smaller school districts like Skagway can get often overlooked when districts with thousands of kids are also under the microscope, and that it was “pretty cool to see us actually compared on some of the same standards that they would use for a large urban school district.”
“I think that no matter where you are if you look at teacher quality, if you look at achievement scores, if you look at just the way that the school is viewed in the community,” Coughran said. “If you are 100 students to 10,000 a day, there’s a lot of similarities in terms of things that they were actually rating.”
The rating system used several categories to devise the districts’ overall grades. Skagway was measured on Academics, Culture and Diversity, Teachers and Health and Safety.
The district was rated as A- for Academics, which is based on state assessment proficiency, SAT/ACT scores and survey responses by parents and students. Academics were weighted to account for 50 percent of Niche’s overall score for the school districts.
In part, Coughran credited this to the progression Skagway has from its preschool program through high school.
“Our kids are prepared not only for the tests, the state assessment and things like the SAT, but I think what we take really seriously is that mission to produce students who are great writers, really conscientious readers, folks that can solve high-level abstract math problems,” Coughran said. “Honestly our focus isn’t necessarily on the SAT or even necessarily on the state assessment in a lot of ways, it’s the fact that we’ve got a standards-based system in this state that’s really well developed and we take that to heart when we plan instruction and start talking about the things we want to do in our classrooms.”
Something specific Skagway adopted in the recent past was an evidence-based teacher evaluation system, which Coughran said was a requirement that came down from the state.
“That has led to some really rich conversations about instruction in classrooms, it’s something that lines up really well with some of the existing practice in our classrooms, but it’s also something that really drives student achievement in a lot of ways,” Coughran said. “Because I can have specific conversations with teachers about goals, objectives, the climate in the classroom, the way that they are using questioning techniques, the way they are using assessment – it’s a lot less subjective.”
While staff and teacher efforts play a role, Coughran said the community of Skagway is also a key to student achievement at the school.
“That starts with parents who care, parents who are here to support their kids, to support their teachers, to do whatever it takes to make sure that our school is successful,” Coughran said. “It comes from the municipality, and the support that we get from them, not only financially, but also as a matter of practice in terms of supporting specific programs.” Coughran pointed to the school’s preschool program, which is funded by the municipality, as one of the factors that sets the stage for a child’s success as they progress through their academic career.
In the other categories graded, Skagway received an A- for Health and Safety, a B+ rating for its teachers and a C+ in Diversity. The teacher rating was determined by teacher salary, absenteeism, state test results and survey responses, while the Culture and Diversity rating was based on racial and economic diversity.
“It’s difficult, you can’t necessarily control who walks through the door, but you can control the climate once they do,” Coughran said. “I think that we’ve always been seen as an open, inclusive educational community, and so I think maintaining that vibe and just that environment, where students no matter where they come from, are welcome in this school.”