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When we know better, we should do better

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On Oct. 14, this newspaper published an opinion piece titled “The War on Gifted and Talented Programs,” by the National Review’s Rich Lowry. I would love to dismantle this highly problematic piece of writing; instead, though, I’ll use this time and space to inquire whether the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner’s choice to publish it was responsible.

Lowry’s text was the most recent in a long list of misinformed, biased pieces on education published by News-Miner staff who have no recent experience in a classroom setting.

Since March of 2020, the realities of working in a school have drastically changed from the school experiences most of us remember.

Therefore, I encourage the News-Miner to take the necessary steps to write more informed pieces on education and the state of our schools. Shadow a variety of educators and students for a day, not just those most similar to your school experience — or the experience that you want to see.

Intentionally expose yourself to the dissimilar realities created inside of classrooms, and work to discover the many layers of context that culminate in the disparities you’re witnessing.

It’d be easy to begin and end with how the pandemic affected our school district but, please, go further. The most superficial view you could possibly entertain is the one that tells you that everything was “good” back when “things were normal.”

Don’t fall for that. Keep going.

The truth is that the pandemic didn’t create any of the current problems in our educational system, but it exacerbated them immensely and exposed the ugly layers of history upon which Alaska’s education system is built.

Yes, we have a history steeped in violence and harm, and that history informs and shapes how our schools operate today.

You don’t have to dig far to find documentation of this. Go to bit.ly/FNSBSDPASTANDPRESENT to read the 2021 implementation agreement to the mediated agreement of 1987, in which the Fairbanks Native Association and the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District outlined a “shared approach” in the quest for “Excellence and Equity for All.” If you’re unsure of why this mediated agreement was needed, incredible humans like Fred John, James La Belle Sr. and Elizabeth Sunnyboy have recorded their stories with the First Alaskans Institute so that the world around them can work to do better for all children.

This mediated agreement has been revisited by FNA and the FNSBSD periodically, most recently in August 2021. The FNA should be praised for their diligence in upholding the agreement and for continuing to work with a “partner” so unwilling to reflect and grow.

The FNSBSD has had 34-plus years to make this agreement a reality. For the sake of our current students and future community, they cannot be allowed to work on their own timeline anymore.

Currently, there are drastic disparities in graduation rates and enrollment in classes that categorize students based on perceived ability, like “Gifted and Talented” courses. Those disparities do not represent the reality of students’ capabilities. Instead, they are the direct outcome of the problems inherent in the U.S. education system, and have been in effect looooong before the pandemic.

One example is the FNSBSD’s continued practice of viewing student learning challenges through the lens of deficit ideology instead of asking how we can better meet the needs of all learners.

The type of “Gifted and Talented” programs that Mr. Lowry so passionately defends, where some students “learn” more quickly than others, often define “learning” as memorization and regurgitation of content, and this interpretation is rooted in a definition of academic success that is bred from generations of bigotry and socio-economic privilege.

Viewed from that context, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner’s choice to publish was exceptionally irresponsible. Our community does not need any more Rich Lowrys. You know what we do need? Problem solving, collaboration, elevation and amplification of authentic voices, the ability to view an issue through myriad perspectives, critical-thinking, self-reflection, metacognition and growth.

Naturally then, FDNM and FNSBSD, you need to diversify your staff. In every aspect of your workforce. Seek out and hire a staff of humans who not only reflect our community, but also respect our community. Intentionally work to support them by enforcing a workplace culture that is centered in respect for all.

Readers, visit bit.ly/DIVERSIFYSTAFF for a link to the school district’s 105 external applications. To apply for one of the seven open positions at the News-Miner, go to bit.ly/DOOBETTER.

Christine Dyer is a parent of two children and an educator in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.

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