FAIRBANKS — Hundreds of public school teachers filled Hering Auditorium on Monday to hear remarks from education leaders as teachers prepare for the 2017-18 academic year, which starts Thursday.
The theme was change and the tone was earnest.
This is a pivotal year for the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, which is adopting a new technology-based approach to educating students known as personalized learning.
State education Commissioner Michael Johnson said educators statewide are watching.
The Fairbanks area school district is the first among Alaska’s largest five school districts to adopt personalized learning on a broad scale.
The initiative rolls out in elementary classrooms starting this fall. Middle school teachers will begin implementation in the spring, and high school teachers will next fall.
“Fairbanks is providing a lot of leadership in our state,” Johnson told the teachers. “I appreciate the (school) board’s vision here.”
The commissioner said that school districts must change their approaches to dispensing education if Alaska is to close the gap between the highest achieving students and the lowest achievers.
“We have one of the biggest achievement gaps in the country between our bottom performers and our top performers,” he said.
Repeating remarks made at an Education Summit in Fairbanks on Friday, he called on all educators in Alaska to unite.
“We must agree on what matters most and work together to achieve it,” Johnson said. “If we have unity around a few things, the Legislature will notice that and hear us.”
School district superintendent Karen Gaborik also spoke, promising to improve the district administration’s communication with teachers and staff. Gaborik scored low in communication in an otherwise positive job review by the Board of Education.
Much of her remarks revolved around personalized learning.
Gaborik played videos featuring teachers Outside who have adopted the teaching method, in which students’ work is tailored to their personal skill levels and students have more options for how to meet state standards.
School districts Outside have reported success with personalized learning in terms of students engagement, test scores and graduation rates.
A little less than three-quarters of students at the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District graduate, Gaborik said.
“There is a great deal of room for improvement,” she said. “We have to look ahead to our students’ future and do everything we can to prepare them for the world they will be entering when they leave us.”
National education leader and author Anthony Muhammad offered advice about how to transform the culture of schools to meet every student’s needs. He received a standing ovation, school district spokeswoman Sharice Walker said.
The school district employs more than 900 teachers at about 35 schools across the borough.
The annual all-teacher welcome back event was preceded by a group of “positive picketers,” greeting the teachers. The picketers were organized by labor unions and the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce, Walker said.
Messages of teacher appreciation were written in chalk on the sidewalk outside the auditorium.
Fairbanks City Mayor Jim Matherly and City Councilwoman June Rogers attended the welcome back event along with North Pole Councilman Santa Claus; Fairbanks Native Association Executive Director Steve Ginnis; Steve Atwater, interim dean of the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Education; and Tim Parker, president of the Alaska chapter of the National Education Association, Alaska’s largest teachers union.
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7587. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMborough.