PALMER — At the last Mat-Su Borough School District School Board meeting of 2020, Superintendent Dr. Randy Trani illustrated what were not equity issues, but disparities in how students at Mat-Su Career and Technical High School perform and how they are selected, detailing a change in course that has drifted the school away from its mission, according to Trani.
“Our goal is not to create a school for elite students but to create elite schools for all of our students,” said Trani. “The point is not to destroy Career Tech, the point is to bring the the whole entire place up as much as possible.”
Prior to Trani’s superintendent report that summarized a 45-page document on the disparities in achievement at CTHS, dozens of people rose to spoke to the School Board during public testimony. Many of those who spoke were opposed to any changes to the current application and selection process. Many who spoke were former or even current students at CTHS who felt that changes would negatively impact the school culture and climate.
“I along with the majority of other students have valued the learning environment and guiding principles that have dominated our school for the entirety of my attendance. The discussion over the equity and intent of career tech has been debated for quite some time but the process of reviewing and changing this has been concentrated to a small group of people including only four students,” said CTHS senior Maya Coombs.
Coombs was joined by a handful of other teenagers who felt strongly about the educational opportunities available at CTHS, including students from a group called “Career Tech Equity.” Trani illustrated that equity was not the concern, but disparity in the populations that are accepted to study at CTHS and how those demographics are represented around MSBSD. Trani detailed the history of school districts nationwide that began to push more toward career and technical education over 20 years ago and how many of those schools have not been able to maintain the mission they set out to accomplish.
“It’s off mission. It’s not a CTE school right now,” said Trani. “The schools that had been built to be career tech schools were becoming more college prep schools and so in response to that there’s been efforts to return lots of schools to that mission and so the question is, is CTHS off mission for which it as bonded.”
Over the course of Trani’s presentation on CTE that lasted over 30 minutes, he compared standardized testing scores of students as they were admitted, showing little growth over their time in high school. Trani noted that the highest performing students were being selected to attend CTHS, but not fulfilling the obligation to learn trades. Of 26 random juniors polled at CTHS, 54 percent had not taken any courses in their selected pathways. At CTHS, students have six career pathways to choose from. The pathway developed to teach students about personal training has been left largely underutilized, as have many others. The majority of the members of the public who spoke to the school board were not in favor of changes, but a small group welcomed the reflection on how CTHS has provided education in trades since it opened.
“It definitely isn’t the top school in taking kids from where they are and moving them forward and so that really worries me. We’re trying to look at achievement for all and of course they’re doing better than everybody else, they started out way better but they aren’t gaining as much,” said Trani. “The biggest one for me is that when you have disparities in a school or in a district it affects achievement across the entire district. That’s the one that worries me the most and I’ve said this a lot, all boats rise and fall on the same tide and I want five years from now, four and a half years from now, I want every kid to walk across the stage with a better diploma than any group from career tech has ever had.”
Trani noted that 26 percent of CTHS students attended Teeland Middle School and 19 percent attended Colony Middle School, much higher than other area middle schools. Trani also noted that disparities exist in the number of special education students, low income students, english language learners and students with disabilities, where much lower percentages exist at CTHS than in the district at large. Conversely, CTHS has nearly three times the number of gifted students as the rest of MSBSD. Trani hopes that a lottery system implemented at CTHS would offer the same educational opportunities for every student in MSBSD, and not create a college prep school for the highest achieving middle school students to attend. While test scores make up part of the admissions process, Trani called out the subjectivity of the interview process as an unquantifiable and possibly unjust reason to select one student over another.
“There’s other ones that are even more concerning like if you’re a 50th percentile student and you had low grades but your parent was very political and somehow you got in as opposed to another kid who had straight A’s, they were in the 97th percentile and they didn’t get in. That’s that black box of subjectivity that we just can’t tell what’s going on in there it doesn’t feel fair,” said Trani.
Trani also illustrated how the Department of Education and Early Development has made suggestions, and Federal funding that directly impacts CTHS could be depleted if the school is not achieving the mission of career and technical education through Perkins grant funding as well as other Federal grant opportunities. Many students and parents expressed concern at the lack of notification on the proposed changes to the CTHS admissions system, developed by the former administration. Trani said that efforts to change the acceptance system at CTHS had been ongoing for five years, including a comprehensive review of all career and technical education components within MSBSD that has been ongoing since 2019 with over 300 respondents.
“There’s been a five year history to try to change it at CTHS. There’s been resistance to that change so this is a long long process that’s been going on, it’s just coming to a head this particular year,” said Trani.
Ultimately, Trani’s ‘absurd aspiration’ is to have every student that graduates from MSBSD in four years be able to receive one of the two components of the Alaska Performance Scholarship, increasing the achievement district wide and not concentrating the highest performing students inside one school building. Trani provided information suggesting that altering the admittance system at CTHS to a lottery based system would result in a greater utilization of the career and technical education courses offered at CTHS and for a more accurate demographic representation of the entire Mat-Su Valley. Trani said that his draft of graduation requirements he hopes to update for the next school year would receive input from Valley high schools during the coming months.
“If we do that, we will have created elite schools for every single student in the Borough,” said Trani.