Cass Pook is running for another term on the school board this October. The three-term veteran says there’s still work to do, and while she’s always willing to lend a compassionate ear to parents, she believes a student’s success begins at home.
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Cass Pook has seen a lot of changes in her ten years of service on the school board: both the federal and state governments have imposed a standards system on schools, and she sees better accountability for teachers.

But her worries are far from over.

“I think we need to have some courageous conversations. People don’t always want to talk about the low Native student achievement, or low-income families. But we need to have those conversations to know how to put supports in, so that we do see an increase every year in achievement.”

Pook has worked to build those supports into her own family. Shortly after she began her first term on the school board, the district adopted a standards-based grading system. The absence of traditional letter-grades was upsetting to some parents at first, but Pook recognized advantages.

“When my kids’ report cards came home I knew which areas of math they were weak in, and which they were strong in. In Language Arts, where they were weak and strong. As a parent that was really beneficial for me. As a Native parent.”

Pook’s other academic concern is unchanged from her very first day on the job: Is core math right for Sitka? She was out of town when the math audit came in, and is eager to hear the results. Pook wants college-bound Sitka students to not find themselves in remedial math classes.

Pook sees her work on the Sitka School Board as a way, in part, to address her own education. In what she might consider a “courageous conversation” she admits that she struggled in the Sitka schools. She doesn’t blame the system, so much as the times. Her own mother went to boarding school, and did not pass on fluency in Tlingit.

Pook knows that her education fell short in some areas.

“I was kind of pushed aside. And as long as I knew how to read, to write, and do basic math, then that was okay. But I don’t think you could say that was just Sitka, where I grew up. It was just something from my era that was acceptable.”

This is where Pook says her quiet advocacy stems from, and she says the district has made huge strides in serving more diverse needs in students. But she also believes that the work doesn’t begin on the first day of school.

“I Don’t mean to offend anybody if I voice that some people have the view that it’s the school’s job to educate their child. But it really takes parent involvement. But if you don’t have the support – if you can’t support your child at home – go to the school and find out what’s available. What’s available to help my child to succeed.”

The Sitka School District has made a huge investment in technology over the past two years. Pook discusses this with no hint of irony: She is a ward clerk at Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital, and says she is not really comfortable with computers.

“But our kids are living in a global world. If we don’t give them technology, I think we’re failing them. When they go to college, if we don’t give them the tools and the technology they need right now, they’re going to be behind. That’s just the way the world is going.”

Pook wants to keep giving Sitka’s students advantages as long as she can, and that includes extracurricular activities. She says that every year at the statewide meeting of school boards in Anchorage she meets people from districts that have been pared down to core academic classes, and little else. A frequently-asked question of the Sitka board members is, How do you do it? How do you keep it all going?

Pook says Sitka is exceptional.

“We live in a great community with organizations that help out, we work together, and we keep what we can. But those are also the conversations I want to hear from the community: What do you think we should keep? What should we let go of?”

Like many of the candidates in this year’s municipal elections – for both school board and the assembly – Pook says the district’s relationship with the city is fragile, and could be improved. But overall, as someone who works in health care, she finds the district to be in good health.

The municipal election in Sitka is Tuesday, October 2, 2012.

Ed Ronco contributed to this story.