(CSD) is not your typical school district. It encompasses 22,000 square miles in south central Alaska, including much of the Prince William Sound coastline. Most of its 214 students live in remote areas, accessible only by aircraft. Teachers have to be adept at a variety of subjects, including wilderness and cold water safety and how to respond in the event of a tsunami or an encounter with a bear. District programs span from pre-school to post-secondary education, serving students up to age 21.
CSD has pioneered a standards-based system of "whole child education" that emphasizes real-life learning situations. After securing a waiver from the Alaska Department of Education, the district replaced credit hours and grade levels--hallmarks of traditional schooling--with an individualized, student-centered approach. This approach aims for measurable--and demonstrable--proficiency in 10 areas of performance, from basic academic and career development skills to cultural awareness and character skills. CSD's high-school graduation requirements exceed Alaska's requirements in many ways.
Thirty staff members serve the district's widely dispersed student population. Eighteen are based at three community schools. One manages a school-to-work program in Anchorage. The rest are either visiting teachers and specialists who work with home-schooled children or supply education support services. All work with students of various ages, and all teach multiple subjects.
Though unique in many ways, CSD initiated a grass roots school reform movement that has given rise to successful instructional and organizational methods that schools in other parts of the United States are working to emulate.
CSD is the smallest organization ever to win a Baldrige Award.
Since 1994, when it began a comprehensive restructuring effort, CSD has progressed from a school district in crisis to one in which student performance exceeds state and national norms. Schools that once had been the cause of local discontent are now a source of community pride.
When CSD leaders initiated their "onward to excellence" process, indicators of student performance were well below state and national averages, with staff turnover exceeding 50 percent. Scores on the California Achievement Test were the lowest in the state, and, the average student was reading three grades below grade level. Business leaders complained that CSD graduates were deficient in basic skills, and in 26 years, only one student went on to college.
From the outset, the district's overhaul was undertaken collaboratively--with CSD staff, current and past students, parents, school board members, and business and community leaders. Stakeholder meetings yielded a core vision, shared values and beliefs, and five categories of organizational performance goals: basic skills, individual needs of students, character development, transition skills, and technology. Throughout, stakeholders emphasized that accountability should be built into the educational system and embedded in CSD's performance goals.
With the aim of helping students reach their full potential as individuals and as members of their communities, CSD created a continuum of standards for 10 content areas. Demonstrable proficiency in each area--and not the number of credit hours earned--was set as the essential condition for graduation. Once it secured a waiver from the credit-based graduation requirement, CSD proceeded to implement and refine an innovative standards-based system that has the flexibility to accommodate the personal learning styles and speeds of all students.
Specific minimum graduation levels of mastery were established for the 10 content areas. Through a variety of formal and informal assessments at each step, students are evaluated in the traditional areas of reading, writing, mathematics, social science, and science as well as in the non-traditional areas of service learning, career development, technology, cultural awareness and expression, and personal/social/health development. These assessments are designed to determine whether students can apply skills and knowledge in real situations.
Students work at their own developmentally appropriate pace. Some may achieve graduation-level proficiency as early as age 14, while others may meet the requirement at age 21. Once students master level four--midway to graduation--they receive a wireless laptop computer.
CSD students still must meet the state benchmark testing requirements and pass the High School Graduation Qualifying Exam. While these exams cover reading, writing, and math, CSD's graduation requirements include science and social science and its five non-traditional content areas.
CSD's standards-based system is no mystery to students or to their parents. Expectations are clear and progress toward meeting them is documented in a running record of assessments completed in all content areas. Teachers, children, and parents regularly consult these student assessment binders. Upon graduation, students are given their assessment binders, which serve as proof of skill mastery.
Student assessment binders are but one of several CSD tools designed to accommodate individual differences in learning and to foster school system accountability. For each child, a student learning profile, or SLP, is developed and then updated every three years. Through testing and other means, each student is assessed to determine his or her learning patterns. This knowledge enables teachers to determine whether, for example, a student learns best through visual instruction, by means of hearing, or with physical aids that can be manipulated.
SLPs are key inputs into learning plans tailored to the strengths, weaknesses, developmental stage, and circumstances of each child. As teachers prepare these individualized instructional strategies, students participate in setting goals for demonstrating mastery of the 10 content areas at the relevant level.
Integrated learning and multi-sensory approaches to teaching are key elements of CSD's "whole child" education. Each year, district staff meet to develop thematic units for the upcoming school year. Resulting lesson plans and student projects transcend content areas, so subjects are not taught in isolation. A key aim is to help students make real-life connections and recognize the value and usefulness of what they are learning.
CSD's Anchorage House epitomizes this approach to contextual learning. Students at the junior high levels begin participation in this four-phase residential program, which provides them with opportunities to apply their learning skills in an urban community. During the last two phases, which may span from several weeks to 10 months, students participate in internships or other workplace programs as they take responsibility for managing their daily activities.
Although students, faculty, and resources are widely dispersed, CSD has succeeded in achieving a unity of focus among staff and stakeholders. Stakeholder meetings are held quarterly, and surveys to gather community input on CSD performance and goals are conducted annually. Community members regularly attend in-service learning and planning sessions for CSD staff.
A variety of district-wide tools, such as the Chugach Instructional Model for developing integrated-learning teaching units and an automated student tracking system, promote cohesion among staff. Also, to align action plans, CSD offers 30 days of faculty training each year, double the state average. In addition, a professional development fund provides faculty and staff with up to $1,000 each for outside training.
CSD supplements salaries with a pay-for-performance system that rewards individual and district-wide accomplishments. Recognizing the challenging demands that confront faculty in their isolated locations, the district provides for flexible working conditions, allowing arrangements for sharing or rotating jobs and creating a relief team of experienced teachers. The faculty turnover rate, which averaged 55 percent between 1975 and 1994, has fallen to 12 percent.