Counselor turnover and second helpings at lunch, Northwest Arctic students grill superintendent candidates

Northwest Arctic Borough School District Superintendent candidates Terri Walker (center square, middle) and Pauline Harvey (center square, right) field questions from students across the district via teleconference. (Wesley Early/KOTZ )

The Northwest Arctic Borough School District has two candidates for the vacant superintendent position. This week, principals, staff and teachers from across the district got an opportunity to meet with the candidates, providing their input in the hiring process. But it wasn’t just the adults that were involved in the selection.

As students from Kotzebue and the surrounding ten villages gathered in front of webcams in their schools, Lon Garrison with the Association of Alaska School Boards explained the format.

“So I am just going to pick a popsicle stick that has your school name written on it,” Garrison said. “And you will get to ask the question when I call on your school.”

Each batch of students had one question to ask. School Board president Margaret Hansen says the district staff helped students with forming their questions, but the ideas were driven by the students themselves.

The first school to ask a question: Kivalina. 

“How will you guys help our new school to have enough space for our classroom and our gym for our growing population of students and our people.”

Kivalina has been hit with coastal erosion driven by a warming climate. The village is in the process of relocating the school to a new location before it sinks into the ocean. Candidates Pauline Harvey and Terri Walker gave similar answers, highlighting the work the district has already done in preparing the village and securing funds for the move.

The process followed that format for about an hour with students asking questions that touched on a myriad of topics:

Kobuk: “How long do you plan on being the superintendent?”

Ambler: “How has the teaching profession changed since you were a teacher?”

Noatak: “How do you plan on bringing our Inupiaq culture into our schools?”

Noorvik: “How will you get more involved with our communities and students?”

Selawik: “How can you get students a second helping for lunch because they’re still hungry?”

As candidates answered questions, the principals of each school had a chance to watch their kids engage in the public process. They had all been flown to the Kotzebue district office that morning to meet with the candidates earlier that afternoon. 

Pedro Garcia is the principal for the school in Buckland. He says he’s pleased that students from his school asked a question affecting all of the schools in the region. 

“They asked about the counselors,” Garcia said. “They wanted to secure that there was a counselor who was certified and experienced on campus, because they have experienced turnover in counselors and it’s very important to them.”

With the exception of the school in Deering, which cut out early due to connection issues, every school got an opportunity to ask a question of the two candidates. 

Now, when the district chooses a new superintendent later this week, the decision will be based, in part, by input from the largest group of school stakeholders: the kids in the classrooms.