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Aurora Institute

Driven by Student Empowerment: Chugach School District

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field, Activate Student Agency

Debbie Treece
Debbie Treece

This is the first post in the Chugach School District series. Continue reading the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh posts. 

I’ve never been to Alaska before. All I can say is that it was beyond any and all expectations – as was my visit to Chugach School District (CSD).

I’m sure you’ve heard about Chugach. It’s the first district to transform itself into a competency-based model (or what they refer to as performance-based). It’s the basis of the must-read Delivering the Promise. CSD has stayed the course for twenty years, developing a sophisticated system that provides flexibility to their schools while keeping a firm eye on student achievement and progress. And they aren’t done – they are continually exploring ways to increase access to knowledge, expand hands-on and college/career readiness opportunities, and more.

It’s not easy to see the CSD performance-based system in practice. Seventy-seven percent of their students are homeschoolers, the schools in the Alutiiq communities of Tatitlek and Chenega Bay require boarding a charter flight, and the road to Whittier…well, it goes through a one-lane tunnel where you have to decide whether you want the wheels of your car to fit on top of the railroad track or to the sides, and where you have to be prepared to share the road with moose if the snow gets too deep! (There is also the Voyage to Excellence, a statewide variable-term residential program to expand learning opportunities, which I’ll talk about in future posts.)

I spent three days with the CSD team in order to fully understand their approach – and I am forever grateful for their willingness to share their knowledge and their love of Alaska. I learned so much about performance-based education: how it looks in tiny, rural schools; how it can be structured for Native education; how it supports special education students; and how the infrastructure can be intentionally designed to capture all aspects of learning and student development.

A special thanks to Debbie Treece, Director of Special Education, who organized the tour, answered a thousand questions, and drove me through a wintery-white landscape to Whittier.

Getting Results

Given that competency education is still in its very early stages of development, we have few examples of results. There is also the problem that the current state assessment systems are most likely not going to capture student progress for students who entered school far below grade level. However, Chugach’s results are compelling. Remember as you look at them that Chugach is serving remote villages and very small populations, so numbers can swing wildly as families move in and out of the area (which can be very expensive during the winter, since they have to ship in groceries and pay huge heating costs).

1992-3 2005-6 2009-10 2013-14
Attendance 90% 96% 97% 93%
Enrollment 132 214 264 288
Language Arts <25% 78% 78% 80%
Math <25% 65% 65% 58%
Teacher Retention 55% 90% 95% 81%
4-Yr Graduation Rate 45% 70% 76%

In the 2014 state assessments for Chugach students in grades 3-10, 84 percent were reading at proficient or advanced levels, 76 percent accomplished the same in writing, and 57 percent were proficient in math. Achievement in math has been as high as 94 percent of students proficient or above in the past, with the help of a major math grant. Thus, CSD is working to strengthen math instruction within its operations. CSD has set the goal of increasing the number of teachers that are highly qualified in math by 5 percent each year. In 2006, they had 5 percent of their teachers as HQ in math, and reached 60 percent in 2014.

How It All Began

CSD was formed in 1975 when the state legislature created rural school districts to serve communities with ten or more students. This was done through a combination of advocacy to improve Native Alaskan education and an increase in public funding due to the expansion of the oil industry. (See A History Of Schooling For Alaska Native People by Carol Barnhardt for more background information.) In addition to serving the three villages, Chugach School District participates in the state’s choice-based homeschool program, in which parents can choose among districts to support them.

However, by 1994 there was a problem. Community and school board members from across the school district were frustrated by many of their children’s low achievement levels. Bob Crumley, CSD’s current superintendent and, at the time, a teacher in Whittier, explained, “Our entire transformation started with the communities and school board asking us hard questions – they wanted to know why their children were not reading at grade level. Our communities were not sure they trusted the schools and teachers. The lack of trust was partially based in the history of Alaska and how Native Alaskan communities have been treated. However, it was also based on the fact that we were not currently effective in helping all children to learn the basics or prepare them for success in their lives. We had to find a way to overcome that.”

1in the beginningParents were concerned that their children were still struggling to read. They demanded that the superintendent Roger Sampson (later president of the Education Commission of the States) improve the situation. He selected a scripted reading program that did improve reading scores. More importantly, it forced the district to face up to the fact that they were failing the students and their communities. As Crumley put it, “We began to talk with community members about what they wanted for their children and their schools. We realized that first and foremost we needed to center schools around our students. We needed to be more comprehensive as we structured schools that would prepare them for life beyond graduation.”

To balance his traditional top-down management style, Sampson brought on Richard DeLorenzo as assistant superintendent. Together with community partners and the CSD teachers, they began to restructure the district policies and practices. (See Bob Crumley’s Three Phases of Implementing a Performance-Based Educational System for more information.)

Having watched many other districts move toward performance-based education but not be able to sustain it over time, Crumley has come to believe that community engagement is the essential ingredient. “I think the biggest mistake that districts moving towards performance-based systems make is that they skip the community engagement piece. To community members, it quickly becomes ‘your system’ and not ‘our system.’ Too many districts just glance through that step, and it always comes back to bite them. When we transform our schools to a personalized system, we have to start with being community-based. We simply can’t think about our students as outside of our own community.” 

A Working Strategic Plan

The community-school conversation that started in 1994 continues today. Strategic plans are created in partnership with the communities and turned into working documents that guide all the stakeholders. The most recent strategic plan developed in 2012 is actively used to guide decision-making. Treece pointed out, “The strategic plan, shared purpose, and shared values are very powerful in helping us work as a team even though our schools are geographically isolated and the homeschool teachers are based all over the state. It helps us to have a common way of talking about issues and solving problems.”

With its emphasis on shared responsibility, student empowerment, respect, and diversity, the mission is worth reading about.

The Chugach School District is committed to developing and supporting a partnership with students, parents, community and business which equally shares the responsibility of empowering students to meet the needs of the ever changing world in which they live. Students shall possess the academic and personal characteristics necessary to reach their full potential. Students will contribute to their community in a manner that displays respect for human dignity and validates the history and culture of all ethnic groups.

1 a chugach valuesThat shared purpose of “empowering student ownership of learning and success” is supported by eight values (or elements):

  • Performance-based learning
  • Valuing stakeholders
  • Resiliency
  • Agility
  • Shared leadership and responsibility
  • Open and honest communication
  • Continuous improvement and innovation
  • Trust and teamwork


Each of the schools has taken these ideas and turned them into shared purpose that draws on their own community. For example, Tatitlek created an acronym to capture what they want from staff based on “liiluni,” the Alutiiq word for learning: Loving Instruction from Imaginative Life-long learners Uniquely qualified to Nurture Individual students.

Even the administrative staff makes decisions based on the shared purpose and values. In my conversation with the administrative team, they gave example after example of problem-solving that would allow the district could respond to the needs of students and staff, create opportunities for student participation and decision-making, and seek out cost-effective strategies so even more resources could be pushed to the schools.

The strategic plan has five focus areas, which drive the performance objectives and indicators used in the continuous improvement process. They include:

  1. Student Learning for All
  2. Staff Effectiveness
  3. Shared Leadership
  4. Finance and Facility Efficiency
  5. Community Engagement

Chugach School District takes continuous improvement seriously – it received the Baldrige Award in 2001 and the Alaska Performance Excellence (APEX) Award from the University of Alaska Anchorage in 2009. Having read through the APEX application, it’s clear that every piece of CSD policies, operations, and practices is part of an intentional design to create a student-centered, trust-generating, nimble organization.

See Part 2 for an overview of the performance-based infrastructure.