Chugach School District: A Conversation with Bob Crumley

Q&A   28 January 2016
By Bob Crumley, Chugach School District

 

We weren’t trying to change the world. We were out to create something great for our own kids, based on common sense and what would work for us.

Bob Crumley
Former Superintendent Chugach School District

Q.  Chugach was the first public district in the United States to transition to a competency-based model—back in 1994! What made you take the first steps in this journey?

A.  Bob: We had this burning sense of urgency that we had to do something different to get different results. We cover a huge expanse of geographical territory and have a very low population density. In Alaska, you have to have 10 kids physically in a brick-and-mortar learning environment to keep a school funded and open, and, throughout the years, some of our facilities have gotten pretty close to that number. We also serve about 280 homeschooled learners from all over the state. Yet, despite all the ways we are unique, we were still behaving like a traditional district—and we’ve heard it said, “The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results.”

 

We had this burning sense of urgency that we had to do something different to get different results.

Bob Crumley
Former Superintendent Chugach School District

Q.  How did you approach this process of transformation?

A.  Bob: The important thing to know is that our process was very organic. We used a process called “Onward To Excellence” to encourage meaningful community discussion and to gather authentic input. We knew we had to use the input—to honor the input—in developing an improved learning system for our students. We used all of the community input, along with research we’d reviewed and our own common sense, to collaboratively develop our improved learning system. And, we weren’t trying to change the world. We were out to create something great for our own kids, based on common sense and what would work for us.

Also, we didn’t want to launch right in without doing the preparation and planning to make the transformation successful. The last thing we wanted to do was to end up as just another swing on the pendulum of education reform. So, we made a 5-year commitment to the transition—to ensure that we’d have the time to do it right.

Q.  Was there one aspect of the process that stood out to you as being essential to Chugach’s success?

A.  Bob: We started with the community. We received a 2-3 year grant to hold a series of community engagement meetings. Those were difficult but served as a really important piece of the puzzle. We felt that if we were going to ask people to show up and spend time talking about what education should be, we’d better make a commitment to act on the input we got. If you can’t or won’t act on it, why even have the process?

In the years since, I’ve seen many other people attempt to replicate what we did. It usually ends with mixed results. I think that’s because a vast majority of the districts that have tried have not given the community engagement piece the emphasis that it deserves. They already knew what they were going to do and didn’t go through that open period of showing stakeholders that their input could change the system. When there were bumps in the road—as there always are—stakeholders didn’t have a sense of ownership in the system, so they weren’t invested in identifying solutions and, instead, became naysayers.

Now, compare that to Chugach. We’ve tweaked our model six or so times because of the input we’ve gotten from the community, as well as from our staff and learners. When we’ve had bumps in the road, our stakeholders have stayed in the game and helped to develop the fixes.

 

Learners were naturally the first to take ownership over the process. It was and is easy for them to see the strengths of our system.

Bob Crumley
Former Superintendent Chugach School District

Q.  That’s impressive. Can you share a bit more about what that level of community commitment has meant for Chugach?

A.  Bob: Because of the process, even those who were initially most resistant began to buy in. Their recommendations were being built into the system, and they could see it happening. Those early doubters became some of our most powerful voices for change—that is to say, besides our kids.

Learners were naturally the first to take ownership over the process. It was and is easy for them to see the strengths of our system, and they quickly became the strongest advocates for it. The kids are some of the most equipped to explain it to others, and they use some really creative methods to do so—skits, plays, discussion facilitation. They really have a lot of credibility with their families and the community.

All of this has meant that we have shifted our vocabulary—it became an “our,” “us,” and “we” conversation. That’s, by the way, the distinction between ownership and buy-in. It’s one thing to support the kind of transformative changes we were doing but another thing entirely for the community to see themselves as part of it. With our communities, it’s not an “us against them” conversation. Never a mentality of “we know more than you.” Our staff is part of the community, not apart from it. The lines are blurred. That collaborative perspective really changes the scope of everything.

Q.  What has this meant for how business has been involved in the Chugach story?

A.  Bob: We included business partners in the process from the start. Now, in Alaska, businesses are the oil companies. Alaska’s economy is 90% based on oil. We wanted to know what they thought was wrong with our current system. We asked them, “Why aren’t you able to hire from our district?” It was really informative. In fact, I believe business is the most untapped resource in education improvement. They want to help, but there is a disconnect—educators don’t know how to ask businesses to help, and businesses aren’t sure of how they can help.

We also realized early on that educators are hesitant to allow business practices into the education world and vice-versa. But now, for example, some businesses have developed a proficiency-based model for their training programs—which they learned from our education system. So, there’s a back and forth here that is really powerful for all involved.

 

Our emphasis is on teaching learners how to think, rather than what to think. We try our best to foster critical thinkers. Our system allows learners to move from learning content to applying it.

Bob Crumley
Former Superintendent Chugach School District

Q.  It is clear that this process has changed not only the way you approach education in Chugach but also how the entire community approaches learning and kids. Can you talk about what this has meant for the learners and for their experience?

A.  Bob: Our emphasis is on teaching learners how to think, rather than what to think. We try our best to foster critical thinkers. Our system allows learners to move from learning content to applying it. And that’s everywhere—our brick and mortar schools, our homeschooled kids, our residential schools, and our online learning opportunities. The fact that we work in all of these venues was actually a catalyst for a lot of the changes in our system. We really need to be flexible, and we have to always be innovating to find out the best ways to serve our learners.

Here’s an example. For the last eighteen years, we’ve been operating what has now been termed a “variable term residential school”—the Voyage to Excellence School. It’s statewide, and learners come in from all over Alaska for immersion courses. While some of these are aligned with Common Core, others are in uncommon subject areas—life, career, and technical skills. Kids come in and spend a week, two weeks, or a month with us, before returning to their regular learning environments. It enhances what is happening at Chugach. And, while we’ve been doing this for eighteen years, its only been recognized by the state as an official school in the last two. That’s an example of what I mean when I say we’re continuing to “build the plane as we fly it.”

Our plane today is just a bit better suited to meet individual learner needs than the plane we started with about 20 years ago.

 

Our plane today is just a bit better suited to meet individual learner needs than the plane we started with about 20 years ago.

Bob Crumley
Former Superintendent Chugach School District

Sign up for Voyager

×

What does education look like in a post-COVID world? Sign up to receive the latest stories that showcase why learner-centered education is built for this moment.