Report links lack of investment in school guidance programs to Alaska’s lagging workforce

(Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon) - Jobs are available in Alaska, but the workforce to fill them isn’t there. A report from the Association of Alaska School Boards linked it to underfunding public schools — especially guidance counselors and guidance programs.
Beacon Students .jpg

(Michael Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, speaks with students at Barrow High School on Aug. 30, 2023. Photo provided by Environmental Protection Agency)

The report noted that one in five young adults in Alaska isn’t connected to school or work.

Emily Ferry, a coordinator for the Association of Alaska Schools Boards, said schools and Tribes need support for these programs.

“It’s not surprising when you invest less, your return on investment is not there, it’s not the same,” she said.

She said money and support are one piece of the puzzle, but another is creating a culture around college and future planning for students.

The study identified that relationships are the key to successful programs that help students make future plans and graduate, she said.

The Alaska College and Career Guide Program was a grant-funded program that did that in Alaska, but Ferry said those supports went away after its grant ended — even though it was successful.

Janelle Vanasse is now the president of Alaska Pacific University, but when she was the principal of Bethel Regional High School, she implemented the program there.

“That program itself made a difference, and I can see it and the numbers say it made a difference,” she said. “That’s why we work in schools to make a difference, so I hope we find a way to recreate it and reinvest in it.”

She said the program had great results because it created a culture of celebration and support around any postsecondary education.

At Bethel Regional High School, only about 30% of students were college-bound before the program — below the state average at the time. But after the school brought on college counselors and “near peers,” former high school students who had navigated the college application process and experienced a first year at a university, that number roughly doubled.

Vanasse said sending nearly 70% to college or postsecondary opportunities was a big success, but what impressed her was that about half of those students got their degree — the state average is below 20%.

“I think it could help us turn around the outmigration of our young people and it could help us grow our own educators,” she said.

Lon Garrison, the executive director of the Alaska Association of School Boards, said the study shows that schools need to start making connections with students and talking about the future.

“Public education can’t end at the 12th grade,” he said. “Public education gets to the 12th grade and should open the door to the rest of your life.”

He said the school boards association wants to see the state make strategic investments in education programs that address the transition from school to the workforce.