PALMER — Dr. Randy Trani hasn’t been through Palmer since he was on the Cordova High School Wrestling team and noticed that a lot has changed in the Valley since then.
Similarly, Trani has changed for the better as well. After leading Corbett Schools in Oregon as superintendent, Trani is returning home to Alaska to take over for Dr. Monica Goyette as superintendent of the Mat-Su Borough School District. Since being hired in a 7-0 vote by the MSBSD School Board last Tuesday, Trani arrived in Alaska on Thursday and has been slowly learning and listening to information about the 46 MSBSD schools containing the approximately 19,000 students whose education he will oversee starting in the fall. On Saturday, Trani granted his first interview since taking the job and said that he wants to give back to the state that raised him to be successful despite difficult circumstances.
“Because of the size of Mat-Su, I have this chance to impact more students than I would in well, every other district but one and it’s my chance to give back to this state that really launched my whole career,” said Trani during a Saturday morning interview with the Frontiersman and Radio Free Palmer. “It was the state of Alaska that gave me the teacher scholarship loan that got me into college, that paid for my college and now this is a chance for me to give back to the kids in Alaska and this is how I can impact the most students.”
Trani was raised in Cordova, born to teenage parents who were divorced when he was just a child. Trani and his mother lived at a Lutheran Mission when Trani was young, but he was able to fall in love with reading and develop relationships with educators that helped him thrive in education as a student and later as a teacher and administrator.
“For me the whole library was the children’s section and I can still remember Ms. Erickson, she was the librarian and I would go and check a book out everyday and then one day she took me aside and she was like you know that you can get five books at once,” said Trani. “When I first became a teacher I thought I was going to be a 10th grade bio teacher and I figured out by day one that I was just going to be a teacher and I needed to meet each kid where they were at and move them forward so that, I don’t think this is a Last Frontier thing I think this is a human nature thing. Alaskans and all the other kids I’ve ever met in my life, when they form strong relationships with a mentor teacher that they like, they do great things and I think that’s super critical.”
Trani was one of 23 who applied for the position after it was posted in late February. As COVID-19 shut down instruction within school buildings and imposed travel restrictions on superintendent finalists who were hoping to visit the Mat-Su before accepting the job, all applicants but Trani withdrew their intent to seek the position. School Board Member Kelsey Trimmer said that the board was told that each candidate that withdrew did so because of travel restrictions and Ray & Associates, the firm hired to help with the superintendent search, recommended moving forward with the process.
“We tried to make the best decisions that we could as a board. I don’t think we realized that it was going to be harder on the public process but we tried to do what we could to make up for that and I know it wasn’t a whole lot by just having the Q and A from him instead of the public forum, but given the position that we were in we had highly qualified candidates and we still had a highly qualified candidate to pick. It wasn’t going to be a benefit to anybody. We needed somebody to be able to come in and lead in this time because we don’t know what we’re going into with the fall,” said Trimmer. “I think it would’ve been a disservice to the district to try to start the whole process over and it would’ve been a disservice to Dr. Trani.”
Trimmer said that Trani’s previous experience in Alaska was not a major factor, but did feel that the chances of Trani sticking around would be better. Trani was one of the first University of Alaska Fairbanks students who had the opportunity to do student teaching in rural Alaska, starting his career at Iliamna in Lake and Peninsula School District.
Over the few days since he has arrived, Trani has learned that University of Alaska no longer offers the program and hopes to be able to help solve that problem. Trani proposed a theoretical opportunity for Mat-Su and Anchorage educators to teach the future teachers themselves. Trani said that the loss of the program was a crisis and that he is of the understanding that MSBSD is working on joining a pilot program to train teachers at the University of Alaska Southeast. Though Trani had not yet read an article from the Wall Street Journal praising MSBSD for remote education during the COVID-19 pandemic, he does believe that distance delivered education has a future in schools.
“I think that Mat-Su because they were already delivering remote instruction and in some cases were able to pivot to it so well,I think they are a long ways down the road of embracing I don’t know. The new reality that we live in where there are many many industries that they do lots of their work remotely, and then it starts making me think on school closure days why does school have to be closed? Now if we can pivot to that, we pivoted this time to it, couldn’t we just pivot to that on the day that the drifts are four feet high?,” said Trani.
Trani was asked about the description of education stagnation as the three-headed monster cerberus in his books and how that could be thwarted in the Mat-Su. Trani said that he already believed that schools such as Mat-Su Career and Technical High School and Fronteras were already successful in achieving student excellence.
“There’s more than one way to skin the cat. If you look at what we did in Corbett, I’ve described to people like we decided to do this one thing really well and we were trying to produce college prep experience for kids,” said Trani. “Each of the schools each of the areas need to decide what is the thing that they want to excel at and that’s one of the ways that you attack the three headed monster. Instead of everybody trying to be every single thing to every single kid, you have the opportunity to provide you know a bunch of operations in the Mat-Su that are good for kids and each one is really focused on whatever they decide and I see some of that evidence here already.”
Trani said that the book currently on his nightstand is “Good to Great” by Jim Collins, and that he was asked by the school board during the interview process what book had changed him the most. Trani responded that the book that changed him the most was when his mother read him Jon Stone’s “The Monster at the End of This Book.” Trani was also asked on Saturday about how much autonomy he believes teachers should have over classroom curriculum.
“When people are invested in whatever they’re doing, if they have had a hand in developing or selecting that curriculum they perform better. It’s much easier for you to deliver instruction in a curriculum that you have been a part of picking or designing and if you’ve done it as a team of your peers and you developed these products yourselves or picked those products you’re going to be heavily invested in that. Conversely if it’s something, I’ve seen some districts where you know there’s no say from the actual educators on what the curriculum is or what it’s like and they start feeling like robots and I think that’s the wrong way to go,” said Trani.
Corbett High School principal Phil Pearson said that Trani was all about the child who is furthest out and least likely to achieve. On Saturday, Trani was asked how he would repair the growing sentiment that teachers and community members are losing faith in the school board’s due diligence, curriculum, contract negotiations and transparency.
“They all have a shared goal around the school. Everyone is here for kids. They’re all mission driven and so we’re starting form a great place so now I think we’re looking at a communication problem, a way to get different people who all want the same thing to communicate with each other and understand that we’re all on the same side we’re all on the side of kids,” said Trani. “That’s a challenge that I’m looking forward to and it feels like a doable challenge to me. I guess if I didn’t feel the way I wouldn’t be taking the job.”
Editor’s note: The entire interview can be heard on Radio Free Palmer May 18 at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., and at radiofreepalmer.com.