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Dillingham's new superintendent talks schedules, housing and a push for better literacy

220907 Dillingham school library.
Ginger White
Dillingham Middle/High School.

There are a lot of new faces in Dillingham's schools this year: 22 teachers and staff are new. The school is facing challenges like restructured schedules and a lack of housing for that new staff. But the second year of the school’s literacy grant program also starts this week, aimed at improving reading in the district. KDLG’s Izzy Ross spoke with Dillingham’s new superintendent, Amy Brower, about what students, parents and other community members can expect this year.

Izzy Ross: Thank you so much for joining me today. Could you go ahead and just tell us a little bit about yourself?

Amy Brower: I am originally from Mississippi. I grew up there started teaching in schools just south of Memphis, Tennessee and raised my family there. About five and a half years ago I moved to Tanana, Alaska, where I started teaching. And three years ago, I was appointed the superintendent/principal in Tanana City Schools.

Ross: You arrived the summer to Dillingham and the start of the school year seemed a bit hectic there. There had been schedules for the middle/high school and then those needed to be rearranged. Can you just go ahead and talk about that situation?

Brower: So as we got closer to the beginning of school, we had a lot of new staff. Our principal, our director of school climate and culture, and school counselor were all new this year. And as we were trying to schedule students and work a schedule with a lot of new staff — teaching staff as well — what we realized was that the eight-period schedule was just not really going to work for us. And so after talking to teachers, and really making some consideration of what was in the best interest of students, we decided that taking a couple of days to allow our teachers to work with students and reset expectations after COVID and give them the opportunity to get to know our new staff and those new faces. We spent one day with students moving in groups, kind of exploring the different electives and options that we offer, giving them the opportunity to visit places that they may not actually consider but may be interested in after visiting that. So we gave them those opportunities, and set it up so that we can have a really great school year and support our students in the best way that we can.

Ross: So what do the schedules look like now? You mentioned the eight-period schedule not being that feasible this year. What are students dealing with?

Brower: We are working on a six-period schedule. And it's a hybrid schedule, with a couple of days where students actually see every teacher, all six periods. And then we have three days in the middle of the week where they alternate with some 90-minute blocks. So that gives them the opportunity to have those longer class periods to do some science experiments, to do some cooking in the homework room, things like that, that are a little more difficult to do when you only have 50 minutes to do that. It also gives us the opportunity to ensure that students get to see their teachers consistently even when they're traveling for sports and activities.

Ross: You mentioned that there were several new administrators as well as new staff and teachers. One of the Facebook posts from the district mentioned there are 11 new staff members in the middle/high school this year. Do you know how many staff members have come to the district in total this year, including the elementary school?

Brower: So we had 22 new staff members. And then we had four internal transfers that that went to new positions within the district this year.

Ross: Eighty-four staff members in total and 22 of those people are new this year.

A recurring issue in Dillingham when you're looking to hire people here is housing. And the school district has struggled with that this year, as it has in previous years. I'd like to hear a little bit about your experience with housing and what the situation is for the school.

Brower: When I got here I actually was living in the school for about five weeks this summer while I was looking and trying to figure out where I needed and could go. And we currently do have several teachers who are still living in the school. We are doing what we can to help them find housing that housing is certainly an issue. The district has struggled with procuring teachers to fill our positions in a large part because of the struggle with housing and people not wanting to come without being assured that they would have some type of housing to live in that's affordable.

One of the things that I have some really great news is that the district is working to hopefully get a grant through the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation for professionals in certain fields — and teaching is one of those fields. So we're currently putting out a request for proposals to look for a partner to either build or renovate housing in the area that would be rented to teachers exclusively. That grant is available to help hopefully alleviate some of the issues that we're finding with getting teachers here. And we are also looking at working with the city — we've been talking to the mayor and the city manager about options that might help us figure out some things and just trying to bring as many people into the conversation as we can to help work through this problem and be able to provide housing for all of the professionals that come into the area. It's not just teachers, but it's everybody that we need to work on.

Ross: Right, it's not a problem that's specific to the school district — It does affect the city and all other entities, are there any immediate solutions that the school district is looking at, for the teachers who are still looking for housing?

Brower: Well, not really anything that I can talk about openly, but like I said, we are pursuing several different options and working to procure housing for everyone as quickly as we possibly can.

Ross: What can parents and students expect moving forward this fall?

Brower: I'm really excited about the LINKED literacy grant that the district received last October. So we're moving into our second year of that. And with that, we are bringing in some consultants and people to help us make sure that our students are the best readers that they can possibly be. That includes providing reading materials for them throughout the school year. For every child through 18, they get about two books per month through this program. So we're actually having our first event Sept. 8 and just encourage people to come out and see what's going on. You'll get to pick up some books, browse through our book fair-ish type event along with getting some valuable information. We are definitely focusing on literacy, and academics to make sure that we are producing the best citizens that we can produce. We have great social emotional learning opportunities within the district, our athletics are very strong. We have some great athletes and activities and extracurriculars available for students. But we want to also make sure that we are producing students who can do whatever it is they want to do in life.

Ross: Thinking about the literacy program and reading in particular in the school district, where does the school district stand right now? And what specifically do you think the literacy grant will do for the students?

Brower: The district is struggling in our literacy with students. As with any district, we have students who are well above where we think they should be, and we have students who are struggling. So we want to make sure that we are meeting the needs of all of those students. And that's part of what this literacy grant will allow us to do. It gives us the opportunity to purchase new curriculum, and to implement some of the best practices that are research-based practices that have been around for a very long time that are kind of coming back and really a big push. The other part of that is that the legislature passed the Alaska Reads Act, kind of at the end of the last session. And while that doesn't actually go into effect until next school year, we have the opportunity to kind of start really working on that and implementing some of those things and and pursuing the opportunity to be a leader in the state. When it comes to literacy instruction and what we're doing for students.

Ross: What is the Alaska Reads Act?

Brower: There are actually eight different components. The big things, though, are that it provides for professional development and support for teachers and families. It gives a framework for ways that school districts can improve their reading instruction and support students who are struggling throughout their careers in education. It also has created some funds for early childhood education, giving grants to districts to help them create and provide high-quality early childhood programming. There are some positions that have been created within the Department of Education that will support districts in their movement to improve literacy skills. Several states in the Lower 48 have already passed those types of bills and this is a conglomeration of several of those bills put together to fit Alaska's needs. And so I'm very excited about the possibilities that it has for us.

Ross: Superintendent Amy Brower, thank you so much for taking a few minutes to talk today.

Brower: Sure, thank you.

Get in touch with the author at izzy@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.