Businesses donate, innovate, improve education


Last month, Hecla Mining, the operator of Greens Creek Mine on Admiralty Island, made a significant contribution to the University of Alaska Southeast. The $300,000 donation will provide scholarships to UAS’s Pathways to Mining Careers program – training students in the latest mining technologies.

This brings the total amount donated by Hecla for the program to $900,000.

Mining companies like Hecla understand the importance of investing in a locally-trained work force. Without it they will lose the race between technology and education as industry invests more in automation.  They realize the ability of the available work force to compete for jobs is handicapped by the poor performance of education systems across our country. This is most evident in the kind of technical disciplines necessary to fuel our economy in the future.

This realization hits home as the results of two surveys were made public.

First, U.S. News and World Report ranked the economies of the 50 U.S. states – measuring each state’s economic stability and potential. Hobbled by the oil downturn and high unemployment rate, Alaska came in #50 – dead last.

Equally disturbing, Alaska’s Department of Education and Early Development recently announced more than 60 percent of Alaska’s public school students failed to meet grade-level academic standards in English language arts and math in this year’s statewide standardized tests.

Students did slightly better on the statewide science exam but barely half were considered proficient.

This follows equally poor results Alaska schools experienced in 2015 – the last time students were tested.

And just two weeks ago, author Mark Lautman was in Juneau discussing his book, “When the Boomers Bail”. Lautman described a new economic paradigm in communities across the nation caused by shifting demographics, our country’s lack of a properly educated workforce and the competition among communities to attract a sufficient supply of qualified talent to fill needed jobs.

Why is it that mining companies seem to understand this but our public schools do not?

Teachers and administrators acknowledge that Alaska’s test scores have been consistently below national averages. In yet another effort to transform our school systems, the State Board of Education has launched Alaska’s Education Challenge to address issues affecting student achievement gaps and to increase Alaska’s graduation rates.

As part of the challenge, five committees comprised of Alaska educators, lawmakers, tribal representatives, parents and students will send their final reform recommendations to the board by Nov. 1. The board will deliver a report to the governor and Legislature in December.

The various committees, made up of almost 100 members, are noticeably light on business representatives. Perhaps they should consider a program promoted by Lautman that is sponsored by private industry and being pioneered in Juneau schools this year. The program was developed to address several intractable challenges many communities face today: underperforming public schools and a growing shortage of technical talent.

A brain-child of Ukrainian-born physicist, Anatoliy Glushchenko, associate professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, this program is simple and based on a universal, age-appropriate physics curriculum beginning in middle school. After living abroad for many years, Glushchenko observed most countries either over-produce or under-produce technical talent.

Countries that over-produced taught a full spectrum of physics topics in all middle school grades. Conversely, under-producers, like most Alaskan schools, waited until high school and sometimes made Physics an elective.

According to Glushchenko, by introducing applied physics in middle school, the student’s brain is completely “re-wired” for complex, analytical thinking.

This results in improved success metrics in almost all subject areas, especially math, but also in the language arts.

Physics is the fundamental science discipline describing how the world works. Whether a student goes on to become an engineer or a musician, studying physics at an early age develops critical thinkers who can internalize and process complex ideas as they advance in life.

The program does not require the recruitment of physics-qualified instructors and is available through a 501(c)3 organization, “See The Change”. The model is to train the trainer (the teacher) who, in turn, educates the student. All content is online and training materials are easily available through the website

The pilot program, implemented in two of Colorado Springs’ poorest performing middle schools, resulted in greatly improved test scores after just the first year.

Local businessman Bruce Denton is spearheading an effort to incorporate the new curriculum in the Juneau school system and has pledged to raise the $47,500 funding for it within the Juneau community.

Collaboration among legislators, educators, parents and students that also includes our engaged and generous business community may eventually prove to be the magic formula for transforming our local schools into true centers for learning.

Our Alaska economy is depending on it.

Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations.