I am a rising senior at Hutchison High School. I spent one year as the student representative on the Fairbanks North Star Borough Board of Education during the 2018-2019 academic year, which proved to solidify my confidence in Fairbanks’ public education but opened my eyes to some of the frustration in the district.
The mission statement of the school district is to “provide an excellent, equitable education in a safe, supportive environment so all students will succeed and contribute to a diverse and changing society.” Certain goals are used by the school district to achieve this, but one is not being upheld well: effective communication.
Teachers, staff, and students, agree: “Downtown” — the people at school district headquarters at 520 5th Ave. — does not do a good enough job of communicating and appreciating the people it needs to support. It is not the fault of Superintendent Karen Gaborik or the school board but is rather a habitual issue of communication.
Teachers believe that they are valued by their principals and principals valued by their teachers, but many students, teachers, and other staff feel as if they are not valued by “downtown.”
The disconnect, from my observation, can be explained by three factors: lack of explanation for why programs are being implemented, the strain of a tight budget, and misconception that the borough is a small town.
The first issue is the most severe: Teachers and staff receive subpar explanation for why programs such as personalized learning are implemented. One teacher who I am close with spoke with me about how personalized learning — the school district’s program to tailor a student’s education — undermined her job and made it harder to teach. It took her two years to realize it could make her job easier and helped students long term.
She explained that once she figured out why personalized learning was important, it became beneficial. She also explained that when the school district initially adopted the program, she learned how, when, and where it could fit into her curriculum but struggled with why.
If “downtown” had clarified it, she would have been more receptive to the program as a whole. Going forward, I encourage the school district to spend more time explaining the why of a program to teachers, students, administrators, support staff, and parents.
Second is the strain teachers have been put under by a tight budget. On the school board, I spoke to the deterioration of education when teachers are fearful of losing their jobs. Teachers should have confidence that good teaching means job stability. We see teachers more agitated in spring not only because they’ve been putting up with us for a long school year but also because they become aware that if non-retention notices (pink slips) are to be issued, it will be in the coming weeks.
The downtown administration knows how scary that can be, but many downtown employees have a more secure job than do teachers. Teachers and support staff ultimately understand that downtown does not want to lay them off, nor is funding truly downtown’s to alter. Likewise, downtown takes no pleasure in balancing budgets using teacher salaries. Nevertheless, this rift prevents true communication.
Finally, the issue of “small town” misconception. Fairbanks can feel like a small town. Groups of people seem to run into each other everywhere, right? Whether shopping, eating out, or watching a ski race, I often observe the same people. Must be a small town, right? I implore everyone who thinks this to take a trip to the Fred Meyer opposite the side of town from they live in and take a look around. At Fred Meyer West I may see 10 people that I know. At Walmart or Fred Meyer East, I am likely to see two. The Fairbanks North Star Borough has about 100,000 people. Of those, 13,000 attend our public schools. We simply do not have the capacity to know everyone in our community. Employees of the school district may overlap for 20 years and wouldn’t recognize the other at the district retirement ceremony. It is neither good nor bad. The school district needs to realize that while there are small pockets of this borough, they must communicate like there are not. Making announcements once in a school board meeting is no longer adequate communication.
I love Fairbanks and the surrounding area. I want to live here as long as I can. That’s why I urge the school district to address the issues that hinder communication.