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PJ Ford Slack, the incoming principal of Sitka High School, remembers her high school principal quite vividly.
“He’s memorable,” she says, “but not in the ways I hope to be memorable.”
Before she explains why, let’s back up a little bit. Ford Slack grew up in a small Quaker town near Philadelphia called Horsham. All that time, she wanted very badly to be a doctor when she grew up. And Hatboro-Horsham Senior High School helped her follow that dream with some programs through the National Science Foundation.
“So I had a lot of opportunity to work in the city of Philadelphia at Hahnemann Medical College, and work with some of the big universities: University of Pennsylvania and Temple and Bryn Mawr,” she said.
So, it’s 1970 – her senior year of high school. Ford Slack is one of six children from hard-working parents who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college themselves, and she’s already taking steps toward becoming a doctor. At the time, she never would have guessed she’d spend her career in education. But that was before everything changed.
“I became pregnant in my senior year and my high school principal kicked me out,” Ford Slack said. “It took almost 15 years later before my biology teacher became the principal and sent me my diploma, that had been sitting in the vault of the high school. And I guess by that time I was well into teaching and making sure that this never happened to anyone else.”
That one moment – that one decision by that one administrator – moved Ford Slack into a lifetime of educational leadership.
Undergraduate studies at Sydney University in Australia. Then, work with language education – English and indigenous – in Australia. Some teaching in China. Back to the United States, to the University of Oregon for a master’s in special education in 1987, a master’s in curriculum in 1989, and a doctorate that same year in educational leadership.
After Oregon, Ford Slack’s resume includes professorial work across the country and around the world. Public school administration jobs in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Director of Special Education for the state, and then in 2006, a move into the superintendency at Delta/Greely, a school district of about 13-hundred kids some 95 miles southeast of Fairbanks.
Ford Slack says education kept her life together, both while she was teaching and being taught.
“For me, every student that I can help them see a way to get through, whether it’s their G.E.D., or high school completion, I want to do that,” she said, “so they don’t have the same sort of climb that I did.”
To that end, Delta/Greely schools runs what it calls a “cyberschool” – a statewide correspondence charter school of about 450 students.
Ford Slack says it employs certified Alaska teachers, many of them out of Delta.
“We tend to work with students that have dropped out two and three times to try and transition them and get them through high school,” she said.
So when she gets to Sitka High School, Ford Slack says she wants to help teachers integrate technology into curriculum. Some of us might remember taking a computer class in school. But Ford Slack says technology is not a specific class or a credit anymore. She says it’s something that needs to be part of all education.
The Sitka School Board agrees. Members have said integrating technology into the classroom is a major board goal, and the next year’s district budget calls for thousands to be spent to that end.
But Ford Slack says her first job when she shows up in Sitka, will be to talk to everyone she can in her building – custodians, support staff, teacher aides, teachers themselves, and students.
“And listen to them,” she adds. “What are their hopes and dreams for the high school? What’s worked, what would they like to see improved? It’s a big listening year.”
Ford Slack is planning to move to town in early August. The first day of school is Aug. 24.
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