Point of View: To ensure high-quality learning, we must support educators

An open letter to the Kenai Peninsula families,

As members of this vibrant and close-knit community, we all share a common concern — the education of our children. The quality of education our kids receive is fundamental to their future and it is with this concern in mind that I write to you today.

Over the last few years, we have witnessed a disturbing trend on the Kenai — the high turnover of educators and unfilled support staff positions in our schools. Last year, in my building alone, we lost a teacher in every grade level except for kindergarten. Over the last two years, we’ve lost multiple custodians, our school counselor, our librarian, our head secretary, our attendance secretary, multiple para educators, and multiple nurses. Over the last few years, we’ve had to employ a long-term sub or a retire-rehire to fill classroom teaching vacancies. These positions can only be filled in that capacity for one year and then we have to rehire someone new. This issue affects not only the education of our children but also the overall well-being of our community.

Educators are the backbone of our public school system. They play a vital role in shaping the future of our children, and when they leave their positions frequently it creates a sense of instability. High educator turnover can disrupt the continuity of learning and affect the emotional well-being of our children. They need consistency, trust, and stability in their school environment, and when our staff come and go it can be unsettling.

High turnover of veteran teachers and lack of funding means that beloved projects and extracurricular activities our students often look forward to are fading away as these dedicated educators leave for better opportunities elsewhere or early retirement. It is disheartening to see these valuable programs disappear.

Our intervention programs are in triage mode. They cannot reach the number of students that we need them to. Our building has not been able to provide math intervention to intermediate students in small pull-out groups for several years. The result is students who need significant support to meet grade-level standards cannot get that crucial help. Our middle school math teachers can attest to the detriment this causes later in their academic careers.

One of the primary reasons for teachers leaving is that our state is the only state in the nation that does not offer Social Security, including disability benefits from Social Security, or a pension for educators. While our support staff is able to pay into Social Security they too do not have a pension. This financial uncertainty makes it increasingly difficult to attract and retain quality educators. As a result Alaska currently has over 1,000 vacant positions in schools and our community is being hit hard by this crisis.

So, what can we as a community do? First and foremost, we must advocate for more sustainable funding and state-level support for our schools and educators. Further, there is another critical bill in front of the Legislature that will help.

S.B. 88, an affordable and sustainable plan that restores a pension for public service in Alaska supports not only our educators and support but also all public servants from state troopers to firefighters and paramedics. This helps us attract and retain experienced teachers and also makes our support staff positions more desirable as a lifelong career option.

Alaska has a moral obligation to provide a high-quality education to every student. We need to push our public officials to ensure that they are holding up their end of this commitment to students. Our children deserve a stable nurturing and high-quality education that will equip them for a bright future; let’s work together to ensure that our schools are staffed by dedicated professionals who are committed to the success of every child on the Kenai.

Heather Baker is a fourth grade teacher at K-Beach Elementary School. She is a fellow parent, concerned educator, ACE teacher of the Year 2019, PAEMST finalist and 2023 alternate AK Teacher of the Year.