At the repeated request of parents we looked into a story involving the Matsu Borough School District and the recent, sudden change, in the manner of admissions into MatSu Career and Tech high school.
When the school was originally founded, under the guidance of then principal Ben Eveland, Career and Tech operated under a tried and true, Career Academy Model. The point of the school was to teach core classes required to graduate and in lieu of the arts and music, help kids choose a pathway toward a skillset and a career that would give them important career insight and experience upon graduation.
This is how the school first operated, with the goal of encouraging students to pursue not necessarily college, but whatever post-secondary training would land them in the career they had learned about and expressed interest in. That could be specific training in Vocational Ed, Apprenticeship, or other workforce training in the trades, OR College.
When Ben Eveland was replaced by recently retired principal Mark Okeson, things began to change. I interviewed a teacher who was present when Principal Okeson began the transition away from Career Academy Model, to College Prep, with the introduction of advanced placement or AP classes, which often ended up replacing a tech class and leaving much of the Career and Tech facility underutilized.
The staff at the time was almost universally opposed to the idea because the Model of Career and Tech is not to funnel kids into the Ivy Leagues, but Okeson didn’t see it that way and over the years transformed Career and Tech into the top academically performing school in the state. At the end of his career, Okeson did this by only allowing students with academic performance exceeding 95% of their peers admission to Career and Tech, provided they interviewed well. Basically he only accepted the cream of the educational crop.
Last Summer the office of the Commissioner of Education noticed some glaring disparities in the demographics of the school. According to Superintendent Trani, the state told the MatSu School District that if they didn’t fix their demographics, they risked losing their Perkins Grant funding, which is the bulk of the funding for Career and Tech Elective Classes.
School Board President Tom Bergey stated that removal of the Perkins Grant would not have caused the outright closure of Career and Tech, but would have made it’s original Career and Tech mission very difficult to fund.
To address this, and to the dismay of many parents, the admission process based on merit, effort and desire that Career and Tech had used until the end of Calendar year 2020 was ended, and the school has moved to a lottery system for selecting admissions. The application process still requires a short essay and two letters of reference to apply, but applicants will be chosen at random by computer.
This formalized lottery change gets to the heart of two issues. The first is the currently arbitrary way that our charter schools hold admission lotteries. Until now, staff might, after 6pm, behind locked doors, open all the envelopes, debate with fellow staff who they liked, and literally choose the winners. The list of complaints against MatSu charter schools for picking students based on Who you Know, is quite long, and the complaints have been ongoing for years according to both Trani and Bergey. When public tax dollars are paying for your teachers and building, it would be an understatement to simply call that an unethical no no.
MatSu Career and Tech had taken this exclusionary selection process to the extreme in recent years, according to Superintendent Trani, by selecting students who weren’t even living in MatSu or even in STATE, over applicants who live here and who’s parents are undoubtedly footing the bill. Imagine if you found out your kid was passed over for admission because a kid from out of state “interviewed well” while you’ve been paying your property taxes here in MatSu for several decades… One could be forgiven for getting a little hot under the collar.
Superintendent Traini told the Alaska Watchman the lottery process across MatSu Borough School district charter schools is about to undergo a serious transparency overhaul that eliminates the possibility of preferential treatments and makes student admissions truly randomized and fair.
The second issue is the abandonment of the last vestiages of meritocracy left in public education. When you make it out of high school, whether or not you give a rip MATTERS. Said a better way, your altitude is determined by your attitude. Career Tech sought to instill this value in its students, and this skill would have served students regardless of whether they went on to post-secondary education, or went straight into the workforce.
Most parents understand this truth, and it’s abandonment on the altar of equal percentage distributions is no guarantee that the demographics at Career Tech will improve. Superintendent Randy Trani, and School Board President Tom Bergey both admit as much, but said specifically, this change will appease the State for now.
Time will tell if educational experiences and outcomes at Career and Tech move successfully back to a Career Academy Model meant for ALL kids, or whether this change is simply more bureaucratic meddling fraught with unintended consequences and little benefit.