U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was in Fairbanks yesterday (Thursday) morning as part of a short tour of Alaska. The Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce hosted a brief round-table discussion at the University of Alaska, focused on workforce development. DeVos heard how schools, the university and business are collaborating in Alaska.
The invitation-only event was moderated by UAF Provost Anupma Prakash.
“We prepare a vast workforce, the teachers of tomorrow, the nurses, the firefighters, the construction workers, and the high-end researchers all through this university.”
Around the room were big employers like Doyon Limited and Alyeska Pipeline, three different gold-mining companies, representatives from tribes, private schools and unions, four training and apprenticeship programs, five hospital and health agents and of course school and university folks. DeVos said that’s who she came to hear from.
“It’s very heartening to me to see this kind of commitment on the part of a whole range of community leaders. I just really want to listen and learn from you.”
The group talked about the benefits of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, known as ESSA, more federal grants for STEM training and the new computer science standards the state just set. They shared examples of business-school partnerships that have led to local employment. Nicole Welsh, the Human Resources officer at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, said they partner with both UA’s Community and Technical College and the school district.
“We actually have a really good partnership with CTC through their Medical assistant program as well as the CNA program with the school district and CTC. I mean, they are our pipeline.”
DeVos had received negative feedback about some of her philosophies on education being a bad fit for Alaska. The Secretary said her trip was giving her a taste of the challenges to education in the state.
“Again I give a lot of credit, clearly, to this community, to really address these opportunities and look at them from a local solution standpoint. We know that one size does not fit all.”
Stephanie Butler, executive director of the Alaska Commission on Post-Secondary Education said she was glad the Secretary was able to see some of rural Alaska and learn about Alaska’s exceptionalism.
“It’s wonderful to be able to provide the Secretary with information on how different and unique Alaska is. Doesn’t always fit and, um, it’s apparent, uh, the Secretary’s aware of that.”
Tribal leaders reminded the Secretary that the Every Student Succeeds Act, known as ESSA, requires Tribal Consultation. State Education Commissioner Michael Johnson picked up that answer.
“We need to adjust to make sure that Tribal Consultation isn’t a box that’s checked on an application, that it’s actually ongoing and happens all the time.”
Edward Alexander, education manager for Tanana Chiefs Conference said that was good news for Native students.
“The next step is accountability measures; making sure tribes are actually listened to, and that there’s follow-up. Hopefully, it’s not just a one-off statement. It seems like the Secretary understands the importance of tribes defining our own future.”
DeVos had been in Anchorage, Kivalina, Kotzebue, and Nome, before Fairbanks. Most of the events on her schedule were invitation-only and not open to the public. A few people, like Pam Groves, were turned away at the door.
“I just heard she was going to be talking about how they could enhance education and create jobs and I thought as an interested citizen it would be nice to hear what they were saying.”
Amara Simmons and Kendra Calhoun were part of a handful of protestors who stood outside the room with small signs, or stood in front of the university’s Engineering and Innovation Facility, where the roundtable was held.
“The doors are closed, they wouldn’t let me in. There was a previous school teacher who tried to get in, who couldn’t come in. I thought it would be enlightening to know what they were talking about, since it likely affects all Alaskans.”
“She’s so selective in her choices for education. I mean she’s a public servant, this is a public university, maybe there would be an opportunity for some open dialogue.”
DeVos returns to Washington D.C. this weekend.