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Our Greatest Resource: The Teacher in the Classroom

A Knowledge Economy School Model for Future Student Success

Stewart McDonald is a rising star in the world of superintendents. As superintendent of the Kodiak Island Borough School District (KIBSD) in Alaska, Stewart was not only named Alaska Superintendent of the Year for 2017 by the Alaska Superintendents Association but also a finalist for AASA’s National Superintendent of the Year.

His accomplishments in his nine years as superintendent of KIBSD are impressive and make him worthy of those lofty honors. He was instrumental in raising the graduation rate from 71% in 2009 to over 90% in 2016. In 2014 and 2015, his district had Alaska’s highest rate elementary school, and none of the district’s schools rated below three stars.

It’s not just stats and ratings. Stewart has designed and implemented an effective suicide prevention program for his district; developed strong Arts programs and student activities; and developed a model for a highly productive School Board.

Stewart sees a paradigm shift away from the traditional model to a knowledge economy that incorporates greater community involvement. It’s important that children build a positive vision of their future with increased parent buy-in.

It takes a system that builds an educational model on the strength-based accomplishments of student learners and it appears KIBSD is well ahead of the curve.


Dr. Berger: Stewart, it’s nice to spend some time with you. We’ve had a lot of conversations with superintendents around some hot topics and things that are front page news and things that we, as community members, are paying attention to, and then those that maybe we’re not just because we’re not in the weeds of what it’s like to run a district.

I’d like to get your perspective on funding and the ways in which districts are looking at corporate America or the private sector in offsetting some budget shortfalls in creative ways.

How do you look at it in Alaska when you look at resources and providing additional opportunities from a funding perspective from outside or alternative resources?

Stewart McDonald: Probably, our most important resource will always be a teacher in a classroom; and we have fallen into a mold to where that teacher in the classroom has to be that traditional teacher. And when we talk about funding, throwing money at projects and things is kind of the old paradigm.

What I believe that we really need to look for is that knowledge economy that can come to us from industry.

When we have a school that only has two teachers in it and we have grades K-12, I can’t put enough computers and distance learning programs into that environment and still create an engaging, vibrant setting.

So we’ve been reaching out to industry leaders to come in and teleconference and visit and provide knowledge economy-based information to connect with students and engage with them in projects. And that has been a force multiplier.

So reaching out to industry and asking for funding to buy things ─ computers and devices ─ and help fund ─

DB: Short-term fix is what I’m hearing.

SMD: Right. The long-term fix is really embedded in a knowledge economy on what industry can bring to us in project management at prototyping pedagogue, those kinds of things that we could never spend enough money on professional development to create in our schools especially our small schools.

DB: Stewart, we’re seeing a nice shift, I think, both as a parent and also as someone who’s worked in education that we’ve gone from a consumer model of students consuming education to creating at all ages and levels.

With that, we’re starting to see a different approach in the ownership of that learning from the student; and I’d be curious if you could talk about where you see the future of communicating student learning outward from the school out to the parent in a way that’s supportive of that learning and then also the information that teachers need to really personalize that.

Where do you see that future of communicating student learning?

SMD: We’re never going to step away from the human face-to-face interaction. Technology does give us an opportunity to help document, communicate, and individualize competency-based style mapping of a set of student skills.

We talk about badging and micro-credentialing and getting that kind of information to parents, making it online and accessible. Those are kind of the hot topics.

But, in the end, I think when a student is able to engage their learning and their parents are buying into that positive personal future vision of the students, their purpose of schooling, and where they’re going, if that’s on the table and a part of our discussion as we move a child through their individualized learning, we can improve our communication.

I feel like I’m butchering this so I’m going to go ahead and destroy your thing.

But where I’m really heading with this is that the parent-teacher conference was about “How is a child doing on particular given set of standards?”

What we really need to move into now is “How is the child pursuing building a positive personal vision of their future and how does the parent buy into that and support that?”

That level of communication is more important, I think, than being able to go through a checklist of standards to see where a child is performing. We need a strength-based model to talk about what a child is achieving as opposed to leading off with a deficit model given this bank of standards of which ones they haven’t achieved yet.

You don’t build a kid through their weakness. It must be a strength-based model.

So communication needs to be focused on the strength-based accomplishment of a child ─

DB: ─ and understand the impact of their language is what I’m hearing.

SMD: And where it’s headed.

About Stewart McDonald


Stewart McDonald has 25 years in education with nine as KIBSD superintendent. He has served as a special education teacher; director of a demonstration project in learning, a formative assessment demonstration project, federal programs, and assessment; and assistant superintendent and superintendent in the Kodiak Island Borough School District (2008-2017). He was named one of four finalists for the position of Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education & Early Development. He was named the “Alaska Superintendent of the Year” for 2017 by the Alaska Superintendents Association (ASA).

McDonald holds a bachelor of arts degree in education from the University of North Florida and a master of education degree from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post

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