Stephen Courtright teaches music at the state-run boarding school. He says helping make policy for local schools is a way to contribute to the community, and bring in a teacher’s perspective.Listen to iFriendly audio.
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No one twisted Stephen Courtright’s arm to make him run for school board. And it’s not about grinding an axe over one school policy or another.
“This is mostly a matter of walking the talk.”
Like many candidates, the 31-year-old teacher and part-time bartender simply decided to turn thought into action.
“I’m one of those people who frequently says, Somebody should be doing this. I think somebody should be representing this, or speaking out about these issues. And there came a point when I realized that somebody might be me.”
That Courtright teaches at Mt. Edgecumbe adds another dimension to his campaign. The boarding school is run by the state Department of Education, and not the local school board. He jokes that he has many friends who work for Sitka’s public schools, and that he wouldn’t mind setting policy for them. But those policies would not apply to him.
Courtright says it’s his work — rather than his workplace — that voters should consider.
“There are things that I would like to see happen at Mt. Edgecumbe, that I don’t have the power to make happen. But that’s neither here nor there when it comes to the Sitka School District. I believe that it’s every member of the community’s responsibility to ensure that the public schools stay at the highest caliber possible. And I do believe that, as a professional educator — someone who’s trained to know what’s happening in the classroom — I have a unique perspective that currently isn’t represented on the board.”
Courtright has two young children, ages 4 and 7, just beginning their school careers. As all parents of children farther along in the system know, a free public education begins to cost more and more, as students become involved in activities.
The policy in Sitka has been to educate the whole child. Even faced with declining enrollment and shrinking budget, Sitka Schools have parted with few activities programs — and even added some. Courtright questions this approach.
“It seems to me that if you’ve got difficulty making ends meet, spreading thinner isn’t always the best solution.”
Two of the most recent programs adopted by the district are high school soccer and football. Courtright calls them “high ticket” but doesn’t single them out as being the only expensive activities. He’s worried that a tiered system is evolving in the schools, that allows only the better-off students access to some programs.
“I think we should ensure that every student should have an opportunity. We shouldn’t be making it so that only students who can afford to, will be able to participate in varsity sports. I don’t think pay-to-play sports are the way to go. If we can’t afford for every student to participate and travel, maybe we shouldn’t have that team.”
Or, Courtright says, the schools should create a mechanism for less affluent students to participate. Possibly a funding pool, similar to the free and reduced school lunch program. His preference, though, is for full funding of whatever activities the district does offer.
And funding remains one of the district’s biggest challenges. Some key legislative assignments last year went to freshmen representatives who have questioned the public education model. Courtright says the schools still have important friends, like Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins and Bert Stedman who have helped organize regional political coalitions. He says Sitka’s school board should step to the plate.
“We do need to be able to play political hardball. We’re the little guys and the big guys are all coming from the railbelt now. It’s not an easy situation for us, being on an island that nobody likes to think about. The majority of them see us as this little blue outpost of cruise ship dollars, and they don’t really think of us as in need of money and help, but here we are and yes we are.”
Courtright is challenging a two-term incumbent for a seat on the board. But he’s quick to say that this election is not about removing Lon Garrison. The two are close on things like the role of public schools and educating the whole child. Their differences, so far, have to do with the role of the superintendent, and technology in schools. On this latter issue, Courtright favors more targeted purchases — like iPads — for the classrooms and teachers who want them.
The district’s recent history, though, has been to make sweeping technology purchases like Promethean Boards, and hope teachers adopt them. Courtright believes this is a symptom of top-down decision-making, and candidate like him is the cure.
“I think the biggest issue in general is that there’s too much policy being made at every level without the involvement of the people who are in the classroom.”
The municipal election is Tuesday, October 1.