Monday, February 3, 2020

Willow Carnival success!

Willow Winter Carnival
Emphasizes Community

Two- and Three-dog sleds were raced by young people
destined to be future Iditarod finishers.

Most small Alaskan communities must struggle to survive and each community heart beats to the rhythm of the school. The annual state Willow Winter Carnival demonstrates this vital link. Held during the last week of January and the first week of February, it was again this year a place where anyone on the road system can go to celebrate our winter wonderland.

This is the second oldest winter carnival in Alaska. There have been times when the community had less than 1,000 residents, but they still managed to put it on every year since the early 1960s.

And this year I had another reason to be happy that I attended the carnival: I won the top prize in the raffle—round-trip tickets for two on the Alaska Railroad to Denali!

During my own second Willow carnival I couldnt help but notice one involved Willow Elementary teacher, Skip Davenport, who explained his involvement in community events over the years, between efforts to guide his fifth grade students in helping Willow Area Community Organization (WACO) with the kick-off dinner.

Mr. Davenport discusses duties with students helping out at the
Willow Carnival Kick off Dinner January 24, 2020.

For me it is paying back, explained Mr. Davenport. My own 6th grade teacher in Las Cruces, New Mexico changed my life. I was a troublemaker, not on the path I should have been on, and he helped me turn that around. 

I have always felt we have a duty to help out in our community, and that is something I teach in my class, community and service--for 16 years, now.
While Alaskans have been surprised at the downward trend of Alaska public education as measured by the Performance Evaluation for Alaska Schools (PEAKS) assessment, Willow Elementary School has done pretty well academically according to Alaska Department of Education and Early Development (AKDEED) information.1 It is joined by the Alaska Science Assessment administered to students in grades 3-9. These tests are designed to measure students understanding of the skills and concepts outlined in the Alaska English Language (ELA) and Mathematics Standards, and the Alaska Science Grade Level Expectations, arrived at through a process which occurred during the early 2000s--as I was taking coursework to become a teacher myself. For student teachers every element of every lesson plan was required to be linked to specific academic standards.2

According to the AKDEED web page: Alaska has adopted standards in the following content areas: English Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, Geography, Government and Citizenship, History, Skills for a Healthy Life, Arts, World Languages, Technology, Employability, Library/Information Literacy, Cultural Standards, and Alaska History. Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics are listed in the Alaska English/Language Arts and Mathematics Standards  (pdfword), all others can be found in the Alaska Content and Performance Standards, 5th edition (pdfword).3

The Numbers dont Lie

The PEAKS English/Language Arts and Math tests have four measurable skill categories: Advanced, Proficient, Below Proficient and Far Below Proficient.

English and Math Assessments: According to AKDEED, 70 students at Willow Elementary School took the 2018-2019 PEAKS English/Language Arts test, representing 98.59% of students at the school. Of those, 6 students (8.57%) were Advanced, and 30 (42.86%) were Proficient. 25 (35.71%) of Willow students were Below Proficient and 9 (12.86%) were Far Below Proficient. The PEAKS Math test was taken by 107 Willow students, representing 95.54% of those in grades 3-9. Of those, 5 (4.63%) were Advanced, 43 (39.81%) were Proficient, 46 (42.59%) were Below Proficient and 14 (12.96%) were Far Below Proficient. Additionally, 39 of those students were identified as Economically Disadvantaged and 31 were Not Economically Disadvantaged. 12 students of those who took the test had disabilities and of those 10 were Below Proficiency or Far Below Proficiency.4

Interested parents can go to the links listed in the References and discover more about the results. Parents are responsible for their childrens education and these numbers are a way to know more.

These Willow numbers stand against the overall Mat-Su School District (MSBSD) English/Language Arts rates for Advanced 11.27%, Proficient 34.27%, Below Proficient 28.13% and Far Below Proficient 26.33% for school academic achievement. Math rates were Advanced 7.39%, Proficient 33.81, Below Proficient 41.98% and Far Below Proficient 16.82%.

This is generally good news for Willow.

For comparison, Haines Elementary School is also on the road system and was the school I taught 6th grade at in 2006-2007. According to AKDEED, 108 students there took the 2018-2019 PEAKS English/Language Arts test, representing 96.43 percent of the school. Of those, 24 (22.02%) were Advanced and 46 (22.20%) Proficient, with 23 (21.10%) Below Proficient, and 16 (14.68%) Far Below Proficient. 60 were identified as Economically Disadvantaged and 48 were Not Economically Disadvantaged. 16 students were identified as having disabilities with 12 of those Below Proficient or Far Below Proficient.5

These are relatively small communities with active parents and dedicated teaching staffs.
The Susitna Rotary provided a classic snowmobile participation event.

Statewide the English/Language Arts rates are: Advanced 10.16%, Proficient 29.11%, Below Proficient 26.77%, and Far Below Proficient 34.15%. Statewide Math rates are: Advanced 6.18%, Proficient 29.56%, Below Proficient 42.45%, and Far Below Proficient 21.88%. Statewide 46.65% of students are identified as Economically Disadvantaged while 21.18%. are Not Economically Disadvantaged. Statewide DEED identifies 66.99% of Alaska students as having disabilities.

My observation: If you think about it, the data is too rich. By mainstreaming students with disabilities we skew the overall results. For parents with disabled students the extra resources required are justified but for parents whose children are not disabled the data makes their levels of academic accomplishment appear less significant statistically.

Davenport talks to a community member during closeout of a
PTA Pancake Breakfast.
Like myself, Davenport is a second career teacher and has his Alaskan story: I first came to Willow before becoming a teacher. I was working on the Slope. I jumped ship from Engineering because Operations runs everything up there; I was an operator for 20 years starting with ARCO, he explained. We got bought up by Conoco Phillips and then traded to BP.

Davenport is also a BP Teacher of Excellence (2010).

You know, I was very naïve when I became a teacher; I thought there would be little lights that would come on above their heads so you could see you are imparting information, maybe some occasional wisdom, Davenport explained.  But you have no idea--until they come back--about how they will turn out. I am so proud of the kids I have taught; I maintain a relationship with the kids. For some of them I have helped them get scholarships after graduating from high school. We work through several organizations; such as Mat-Su Health Foundation, to get scholarships for kids from my classes. Its pretty amazing.

I know what he means: I have told students in my own classes that once I am their teacher I will always be their teacher. For instance, over the years I have had students send a photograph of a math problem so I could help them solve it.

Davenport continues: Just recently a former student came to me and said Mr. Davenport, I need help. I want to get into the Marines and I cant pass the test. We worked on that test (preparation) for months, and when he took it he came within one point of passing! That caused him to become discouraged, and after five months he went to see a sister in the Air Force and became re-inspired and came back to pass it! He is in basic training in California now. I saw his mom yesterday who said she is going to get me his address so I can write him.

What about the day-to-day working as a small town teacher?

In a small town like this it is difficult to keep the kids busy; so on Tuesday afternoons I host the kids in my classroom for Chess Club. They learn to play chess and we have tournaments. Thursdays is After School Math; they come voluntarily and out of 25 in my class, 14 to 17 stay for extra instruction every week, said Davenport. They want to know more, so I teach them logic problems they dont get in the regular curriculum. These are things they need to know to solve problems in life.

We have a very active school, and there are always opportunities to learn, Davenport explains. Right now, Ms. Droids and a parent volunteer Mrs. Lewis, host Science Olympiad on Wednesdays  It will lead into our school's Science Fair in which the entire school is involved. These opportunities come through the PTA, the staff and involved community volunteers like Kathy Fiedler who retired but still comes back and offers important programs.  Our music teacher, Mrs. Hale, offers Celtic Band on Monday and Fridays after school. Our new teaching aide Serena Drover was our amazing basketball couch this year.  Another dedicated staff member, Mrs. Schachle has helped teach our students cross-country skiing for years. 

The entire community helps keep young Alaskans active:  We are blessed with the best PTA in the state. They run the Pancake Breakfast event held in the mornings before each day of the carnival at the elementary school, Davenport continues. Ive never seen any school with the PTA support we have here. That contributes to our success; they offer additional programming that the school does not: physical education activities, direct teacher support (both financial and with projects) and programs that enhance student activities in a very small town--like learning to ice skate, hockey skills classes, gymnastics, Tae Kwon Do, soccer, and baseball programs, too. These are only a few of the programs they have offered our students over the years I've been here. 

The Willow Lions Club is another active resource in Willow.  They host Family Skate Night (once a month throughout the school year), the school GeoBee, Project Childfind, and support individual classes like the aviation unit they financed for Davenports class over the past several years, in which one of their members, Van Wilson, helps teach the skill of building flying models.

That's one thing we do for art during our builds, adds Davenport. Willow Area Community Organization (WACO) supports Willow School in many ways as well.  They financed us building bat houses for a local park last year and another teacher, Mr. Sandford, cut the poles and helped install them over the summer. 

Willow is a great place to teach, we have amazing support from our community, said Davenport.

For perspective I also reviewed AKDEED test results for Riverbend Elementary School in Juneau, where I did my student teaching in the early 2000s. This urban school is in the Mendenhall Valley rather than in Juneau proper and is larger than Willow or Haines schools. There, 142 (98.61%) of the students took the PEAKS test. Advanced learners totaled 16 (11.35%) while 48 (34.04%) were Proficient. 40 (28.37% tested Below Proficient and 37 (26.24% were Far Below Proficient. Economically Disadvantaged students totaled 83 while Not Economically Disadvantaged students were 59. Students With Disabilities who took the PEAKS test totaled 34 while those Without Disabilities totaled 108.

Three communities, three schools, with one carnival celebrating winter. Alaskan communities, each with a school striving to prepare Alaskas children for Alaskas future. That is something to celebrate anywhere in the state but they make a point of it in Willow.


1 Gov. Michael Dunleavy unveils Alaska Reads Act

3 DEED About Our Standards,

4 Willow Elementary PEAK Scores

5Haines Elementary PEAK Scores

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