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Workforce Development Begins in Kindergarten

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Published in Anchorage Chamber News
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In 2014, the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce members again identified education and workforce development as their top priority for the coming year. With the unemployment rate sitting at 5 percent, an aging workforce, and the available labor pool fairly shallow, redefining how we approach workforce development has been a key focus of an initiative to improve Anchorage public school outcomes.

The 90 Percent by 2020 is an effort to raise both graduation and attendance rates to 90 percent by the year 2020. To support this effort, a group of 40 business, education and nonprofit community leaders have come together during the last year to form a coalition of targeted networks studying Anchorage school performance data in ways that have never been done before. This data includes not only existing local school district information, but statewide surveys of teachers, businesses and the public. The bottom line is that workforce development begins in kindergarten, and if we’re going to improve outcomes, data must begin to drive education policy.

The 90 Percent by 2020 initiative is focusing on several key places from cradle to career where children are at risk for dropping out or falling behind. There are six indicators that are being tracked along a student’s K-12 experience, using the data to drive more questions at every point.

Kindergarten readiness is the first key benchmark, as a children who starts school academically and socially behind are likely stay behind long term. In 2013, only 62 percent of all incoming kindergartners were ready to learn. Third-grade reading scores are also an indicator, as a student who cannot read at grade level is in danger of continuing to struggle as he or she continue schooling. Eighth-grade math proficiency is another key checkpoint, as students who were proficient in eighth grade math had a 25 percent higher graduation rate than those who were not.

When students hit high school, we get a glimpse of those students who are not on track to graduate in four years. In 2013, only 59 percent of ninth-graders were on track to graduate on time, with a disparity of 27 percentage points between students who are economically disadvantaged and those who are not.  And while the Anchorage School District’s graduation rate for both four- and five-year students has consistently climbed, still more work has to be done on the remaining students who are not graduating, and to insure those that do graduate are ready for career or college. 

To boost this effort, companies such as ExxonMobil, ACS and Alyeska Pipeline have provided data experts to help a dedicated group of nonprofits to evaluate student performance and identify weak spots in the K-12 student learning pipeline. After one year, the progress has been impressive, and even more so given the fact that the work is being leveraged by nonprofits and the private sector at no cost to taxpayers.

One of the most significant benefits of this initiative is that the data that is being mined has been revealing issues that aren’t directly related to education, but still are having an impact on student learning and performance. 

In the Anchorage School District, one out of every four students finishes the year at another school in the district. This is due in part to the fact that housing costs in Anchorage are some of the highest in the nation, and the lack of availability in rental units is forcing families to move from their original neighborhood schools. Another factor is that 4 percent of the students in ASD are homeless. And while affordable housing is not the responsibility of the school district or the school board, partners such as the Anchorage Chamber and the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. can use this data to advocate for public policies that improve housing, which in turn strengthens education and the economy.

When schools and community groups work together, great things can happen. Harnessing the resolve of the whole community, 90 Percent by 2020 partners are taking action to identify, improve and align the practices and policies that lead to improved outcomes for every child. This is the way forward to improving Anchorage’s workforce.

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