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Federal

New Alaska Schools Chief To Tackle Federal Policies

By Sean Cavanagh — June 04, 2003 5 min read

Roger Sampson’s reputation for rejuvenating rural schools is about to be tested.

As Alaska’s new commissioner of education, he takes over at a time when the remote, isolated districts scattered across the vast state face perhaps more daunting challenges than ever.

The 49-year-old was appointed to the post by first-term Republican Gov. Frank H. Murkowski, and was the top choice of the state board of education. In his new job, Mr. Sampson will head the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. He replaces Shirley Holloway, who retired earlier this year.

Roger Sampson

Position: Alaska Commissioner of Education and Early Development
Age: 49
Education: Bachelor’s degree in elementary education, University of Montana, 1976; master’s degree in education administration, University of Montana, 1979.
Career: Superintendent, Chugach school district, 1994-2000; principal, Kenai Peninsula Borough district, 1984-1994; principal, special education director, and federal-programs director, Annette Island district, 1979-1984. All three school districts are in Alaska.
Awards: National Rural Superintendent of the Year, 1997; Alaska Principal of the Year, 1987.

Mr. Sampson is perhaps best known in Alaska for helping transform the Chugach school district from a perpetually struggling system into a nationally recognized model for academic innovation. His success as the superintendent of the 214-student district from 1994 to 1999 led him to be named National Rural Superintendent of the Year in 1997.

Since leaving that position, Mr. Sampson had retired, but also worked part time as a private consultant. He was selected as education commissioner over Fred Pomeroy, a former superintendent of the state’s 9,876-student Kenai Peninsula Borough district.

Mr. Sampson expects to face vexing tasks as Alaska attempts to meet the requirements of the federal “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001. The law’s mandates and deadlines have generated a groundswell of concern among Alaska’s teachers, administrators, and elected officials.

“Obviously, many states are trying to meet the standards of No Child Left Behind and have substantial work to do, and Alaska is no different,” Mr. Sampson said. “We’re going to be careful to meet the regulations,” he said, but not in a way that forces state officials to “tie ourselves down.”

Rural Bent

Born and raised in Southern California, Mr. Sampson has been drawn to the West’s more rustic frontier landscapes. He went to college at the University of Montana, and took his first job, as a 4th grade teacher, in that state. In 1979, he moved to the Annette Island, Alaska, schools, where he worked as an elementary school principal, along with juggling several other administrative duties.

He became a principal in the Kenai Peninsula Borough school system in 1984 and stayed there a decade before becoming Chugach’s superintendent.

Mr. Sampson, who lives in Anchorage, has spent much of the past few weeks at a family home near Flathead Lake, Mont., where he has been planning for his transition to the commissioner’s job.

As the state schools chief, he will oversee about 350 employees and earn an annual salary of roughly $85,000, according to the state education department. Alaska’s public schools serve 134,358 students.

Mr. Sampson says he is ready for the jolt of a new job. “It will be very different, and a challenge,” he said in an interview from Montana. “But I feel comfortable I will be able to do [it].”

Federal Challenge

Of primary concern to Alaska’s teachers, administrators and elected officials is the state’s attempt to cope with the No Child Left Behind Act’s mandate that all teachers be “highly qualified” in their core academic subjects by the end of the 2005-06 school year and that all new hires in Title I programs meet that standard. Teachers can meet that standard by being fully licensed through traditional or alternative means, and by demonstrating competency in the subjects they teach.

Many Alaska educators, though, say the federal regulations were not written with their schools in mind. One hundred of the state’s 506 public schools employ three or fewer teachers, and 135 schools have fewer than 50 students. As a result, scores of instructors must teach several subjects.

Another worrisome provision in the law, from the perspective of Alaska officials, says that schools that fail to make “adequate yearly progress” for two straight years must allow disadvantaged students to transfer to another school. In the remote stretches of Alaska commonly known as “the Bush,” such transfers probably couldn’t be accomplished without a single-engine plane: The nearest school could be 200 miles away.

Ms. Holloway, the former commissioner, said distance education and other computerized programs could help the state comply with the federal law—though many school systems, she added, do not yet possess the necessary technology.

“We have to have some flexibility in the ‘how to’ of the law,” said Ms. Holloway, who now serves on the state board of education.

Mr. Sampson credited Ms. Holloway and others with helping Alaska establish firm performance standards for students. In trying to meet the goals of No Child Left Behind, he believed the state’s goal should be to further refine its assessments of students, and the certification process for teachers, to Alaska’s particular needs. For instance, the education commissioner suggested the state could do a better job of testing the skills K- 12 students need for success after high school—skills that were highly valued by parents in many communities. Mr. Sampson also said expectations for student learning need to be articulated more clearly, for all Alaska teachers.

As Chugach’s superintendent, Mr. Sampson, along with other administrators, fashioned a system in which students were evaluated in different “standard areas,” ranging from academic subjects, like mathematics, science, and reading, to nonacademic areas, such as “personal/social/health development.” Students in the district advance at different paces, depending on their abilities, until they prove themselves as proficient, through a variety of assessments. The district uses no letter grades or grade levels. (“A Way Up North,” May 21, 2003.)

Student test scores and completion rates soared in Chugach, and in 2001 the district won the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, which recognizes successful businesses and school programs.

Mr. Sampson said he isn’t about to mold Alaska education into a grander version of Chugach. But he said the district’s emphasis on uniting disparate groups—such as parents, teachers, and businesses—in deciding what students needed to be learning, should be broadened to the rest of the state.

“It worked wonderfully for Chugach because there was a shared vision,” Mr. Sampson said. “Everybody had a strong sense of ownership.”

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