ANSEP proposes to run Mt. Edgecumbe as 3-year STEM school

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Lawmakers this week heard a proposal from the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program to turn Mt. Edgecumbe High School into a three-year accelerated program.

ANSEP says it’s a way to save money while expanding an effective program, but the idea was an unpleasant surprise for some at the Sitka boarding school.

Middle school students at an ANSEP summer academy in 2013. (Photo courtesy ANSEP)
Middle school students at an ANSEP summer academy in 2013. (Photo courtesy ANSEP)

This week, parents of Mt. Edgecumbe students got an unexpected email from school administrators. It said that ANSEP, known to many as a summer engineering program, is eyeing the state-run boarding school in Sitka with plans to transform it into a three-year accelerated high school.

“We were certainly startled,” said Dan Dunaway, the father of a Mt. Edgecumbe ninth grader. “You know, the school is really good at communicating with parents and so they’d sent out a little message with a copy of one of the news articles to just explain, you know, ‘if you’re surprised, so are we.'”

The surprise came in the form of a presentation before the Joint House & Senate Education Committees Wednesday by Herb Schroeder, a UAA engineering professor who founded ANSEP.

(Photo courtesy Mt. Edgecumbe High School)
(Photo courtesy Mt. Edgecumbe High School)

Schroeder told lawmakers that ANSEP’s plan would save the state money by cutting a year out of each students’ high school career – and aiming to rush them through the University as well.

“We ran the numbers for the 400-student school,” says Schroeder, “and because the kids are in high school for three years and then it take a whole year off of their time at the University, when you extend that out, it’s nearly $6 million dollars a year for a school of 400 students. Plus savings for families, because they’ve got a whole year less of college to pay for.”

Founded in 1995, ANSEP is widely considered a boon to high-achieving rural and Alaska Native students. According to ANSEP, 95% of its summer participants go on to enroll in college science degree programs.

Managing Mt. Edgecumbe would be ANSEP’s first try at a full-time high school program.

The idea raised some concerns among lawmakers Wednesday about the logistics of a switch to an accelerated program. But many were excited about an idea that Schroeder says would raise the bar for education statewide.

The committee took no action on the proposal, but the final word from Committee Chair Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla) reflected many lawmakers’ strong interest in the plan.

“Rep. Keller mentioned earlier folks should give this some thought as to whether this concept, in wedding statistically one of the best programs in the state with statistically one of the best programs in the state, can actually turn out to have asuper best program in the state,” said Dunleavy.

Back in Dillingham, Dunaway is skeptical of plans to overhaul an institution he says isn’t broken.

“I’m not clear what problem [Schroeder] is trying to fix,” says Dunaway. “But it’s kinda stunning because our son just started there and seems inclined to want to finish out his high school career there. So it’s been a good option for us, and to see that — once we found something we thought was successful – that being possibly threatened, is pretty unsettling.”

It’s also been unsettling for Mt. Edgecumbe Superintendent Bill Hutton, who says ANSEP gave him only vague information about the proposal less than a week before it went to lawmakers. Hutton says the plan would effectively exclude students who have interests besides science and engineering:

“I think it’s just really sad that in our small-population, great-geographical state, that anyone would want students to not have a choice between one great program and another,” said Hutton. “I’m very upset that we were not consulted.”

As of Friday, no bill had been filed. The Joint Education Committee meets next on Monday and Wednesday mornings.