The Setting

The setting: Vast distances and educational challenges

Alaska is the largest state, about two and half times the size of Texas and about one-fifth the size of the entire lower 48 states. With only about 723,000 residents occupying 572,000 square miles, there is plenty of space to go around. If all residents were distributed evenly, there would be just short of one square mile per person, however, most of the population is centered in the metropolitan areas of Anchorage, Matanuska/Susitna valleys, Fairbanks, and Juneau. The Anchorage school district, for example, is one of the 100 largest school districts in the nation, with 3,000 teachers and 50,000 students. Most of Alaska's 54 school districts are located in the "bush;" places isolated from each other and off the road system, accessible only by air, boat, dog sled, or all-terrain vehicle. Of Alaska's 512 schools, 135 schools have fewer than 50 students and 82 schools enroll 25 or fewer students. The distances between rural schools, coupled with their isolation, create gaps in many aspects of the education system.

In addition to geographic isolation, many school districts in Alaska suffer from high teacher turnover; up to 85% turnover in some schools. High turnover rates not only result in loss of continuity and cohesiveness within the school community, but are also correlated with low quality of teaching and poor student performance.