Executive Perspective

A Sense of Direction in the True North

by PAUL D. HOUSTON


Last year I visited the northernmost school district in North America, the North Slope District in Barrow, Alaska. I was there at the invitation of one of our members, Leland Dishman, a dynamic and unorthodox superintendent who created excitement serving the more than 2,000 students who are stretched across a district about the size of Nebraska. (See the Profile for a closer look at Dishman’s leadership style.)

The North Slope gives a whole new meaning to the words "rural" and "isolated." This trip, coming as it did a week before my excursion to Capetown, South Africa, allows me to claim legitimately that I go to the ends of the earth for my members. But the trip to Barrow was about much more than bragging rights.

Barrow, which is the township center and the home of the school district’s headquarters, sits beside the Arctic Sea at the very edge of North America. Watching the Arctic waves roll in, I realized I was in a place where time slows down. The pace of daily life is gentler and the concerns more basic. During my visit to the edge of the earth I realized that it is at the edges where things happen. I was also reminded that life as most of us know it is not how life is for the rest of the world.

Full Time Dedication
In our rush to the mall or to get through traffic we lose sight of the fact that most of the world has no cars and that for many one store is a lot. But it has been my experience that those who live a more basic life are often more in touch with life’s essentials. Barrow was no exception.

I was struck by the dedication of the teachers and administrators to their work and to their children. School for them is a full-time job. When you teach in one of the North Slope villages, you are there for the winter. The school is the center of the community and the kids come and go throughout the evening. Being a slave to city luxuries, I asked them what they found to do to occupy their time and they told me their lives were so full with the work and the children they had little extra time to worry about it.

Dishman and his staff molded an exciting learning environment for their Eskimo children. Fortunately, the North Slope is blessed with oil reserves, so resources are available to offset the isolation that surrounds the children. The staff takes advantage of every kind of technology to expose the children to the wider world. They also bring in outside experts to spark children’s interest.

My trip coincided with a visit by three NASA astronauts, whom the district had brought in to enrich the children’s experience. I went around with the astronauts to visit classes and watch them interact with the children. It was stunning to see the children use the technology of televised distance learning, to interact with the astronauts about space travel and then to hear the children discuss going out after school with their parents in skin-covered boats to hunt whales, just as their ancestors had done for thousands of years.

My head was spinning, but the children didn’t seem the least bothered by that paradox. I also was struck that in this age of school safety concerns one of the biggest safety issues for the North Slope is helping the kids learn how to avoid polar bear attacks. Here I was, at the end of the millennium, visiting a world where many of the issues were as old as time itself. The children had to have a foot in each of the worlds of past and future, and they moved between these worlds effortlessly.

Distant Discoveries
As you fly over the villages on the North Slope, one building always stands out in stark relief--the school. Yet today the value of our public school system is often overshadowed by other issues, and this oversight carries enormous repercussions. I have come to believe that in many ways our society is on the edge--on the edge of losing our way as a democracy, on the edge of losing our understanding of which way true north lies and on the edge of abandoning our village of common concern for each other.

The one institution that stands in the way of losing all that, of succumbing to a vicious attack of polar bears, if you will, is our public school system. In today’s climate of school reform, high-stakes testing and accountability, it is easy to lose sight of the reason education exists--to help the next generation find their wider world. That’s what my visit to Barrow reminded me.

Near the end of my last day there I spotted a quote from Andre Gide hanging on the wall of one of the schools that I thought should be on every school leader’s wall. Gide, the Nobel Prize-winning French author, reminded us that "one doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time."

Education is about helping our children learn to navigate the world so that trip of discovery away from the edge of the shore is a safe and successful journey.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail: phouston@aasa.org